The pickers show up in late-May, right before school lets out, near your birthday. The dirt road to your house splits piney woods from the fields, so any time you go someplace or come back you pass them, bent among the rows like living scarecrows, the hard, green tomatoes thundering into their buckets. You like the way the air smells this time of year, like thunderstorms and blossoms, the way the holly bushes vibrate with bees, and inch worms dangle from who knows where.
Mama tells you the pickers are mostly Mexicans but maybe also from other places like Honduras or Guatemala, and they travel where ever crops need gathering. That’s what migrant means, she says. They have children out there with them and you think how weird and magical those kids’ lives must be, travelling from place to place like that. You’ve never been out of South Carolina, except one time when your family went up to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. That was last summer, when you were eight.
You still think about those mountains and how, on the way back home to the Lowcountry, you faced backwards in the station wagon, believing if you never took your eyes off those smokey peaks, you could see them forever. You ended up accidentally falling asleep and when you woke up somewhere around Columbia the mountains were gone.
Anyway, you’re curious about where those migrant children attend school. You ask Mama. She’s not sure. She tells you they speak Spanish. You wonder what that’d be like, talking a different language in a far-away country and getting to be outside all day while the kids who live there are stuck in school.
You wish you could be friends with a migrant child, but no one knows any of them except for Mr. Jenkins, the farmer who owns the tomato fields. Coming home from school one afternoon, you see him driving out of the field in his pickup. Mama pulls over so they can get by one another. When she does this, you get a good, long look at the pickers. You see a little girl about your age squatting at a nearby row, dropping tomatoes into a red, plastic bucket, like all the other red, plastic buckets the pickers use. You stare at her hard, thinking if you look at her long enough, begging her in your mind to look up at you, she will. In a way, it’s like when you wanted to keep looking at those Blue Ridge Mountains last summer, like your eyes could make the thing they saw do what you wanted. Anyway, Mama has lowered her window and she and Mr. Jenkins say hey and Mama says how’s tomato season going and he says really need some rain it’s getting too dry and just when Mama is saying it’s hottern’ Hades, the girl in the field looks right at you. Your heart thumps and you wave at her, quickly, before she can look away.
She wears a pink shirt and a floppy straw hat but you can see her eyes, big and brown. She smiles wide, not shy at all like you figure you’d be if you were in her country and a Mexican stranger waved at you from her Mama’s car on the side of a road. Mama is already driving again. You and that girl stare at each other until the sandy dirt from the tires rises and blocks her from view. You think of that dust powdering her hair and clothes and that she’s probably sweaty. You wonder where she’ll take a bath tonight, where she’ll sleep, and what her name is. You wonder what she’ll eat for supper. You ask Mama how to say your name in Mexican. She says, You mean in Spanish? You say, Yes m’am, Spanish. She says, Well… Elizabeth is Elizabeth. I think your name is your name no matter where you say it.
You search the field for the girl’s floppy hat and pink shirt every time you pass until the migrants leave in late June, but you never see her again. How she looked at you as long as you looked at her makes you know, in the way only nine-year-old girls can know, that she was thinking about being your friend as much as you wanted to be hers.
One especially hot Friday after school, not too long after you saw the girl in the pink shirt, but before summer vacation, you hear sirens when you’re out in your yard playing with your dog Mud. His name is Mud because you and your little brothers found him wandering in the marsh and pluff mud in front of your house last Thanksgiving break. It was low tide. You bogged out there, careful to avoid the oyster beds, and grabbed him while Pete and Jackie Boy cheered you on from the dock where they sat dangling their feet. You set the mud-caked puppy down in the grass, and he didn’t mind when you and your brothers cleaned him under the hose. He was just the sweetest, little yellow dog and you and your brothers loved him then. Y’all begged Mama and Daddy to let you keep him, and they finally said yes.
Mama said, Wonder where on earth he wandered up from, and Daddy said, Somebody probably tossed him from the bridge, not wanting another pet to feed.
In your head you see what Daddy said happening like a TV show and you picture the face of the person who could throw a live dog off a bridge. That person would be creepy with ugly eyes that made everyone want to turn away from him. The thought gives you the shivers.
Anyway, you hear the WEE-ow WEE-ow WEE-ow of a siren far away and you and Mud walk down to the riverbank because the sound seems to be coming from across the river.
You look toward the bridge that joins John’s Island, where you live, to Wadmalaw Island, and you see a whole mess of emergency vehicles, lights flashing. You’re sticky-sweaty, the hot air feels heavy as steam, but the lights blinking make you think of Christmastime, which is weird because the world smells of gardenias and mowed grass and saltmarsh, not at all Christmassy.
You walk to the end of the dock because that gives you a better view of the bridge and you sit down, careful not to get splinters in your legs. Mud sits beside you and sniffs the seagull poop splattered on the dock like dried white paint and you watch the activity at the bridge, guessing what might have brought those ambulances plus a firetruck, even when there’s no smoke or flames. Those emergency lights make your insides feel electric because something bad is unfolding down the river. You watch, thinking maybe the police caught the creepy man pitching puppies.
When Mama rings the bell on the porch, you know it’s suppertime, so you go back to the house, but not before a police boat shows up under the bridge, and you think that’s something you’ve never seen before: a police boat.
Mama says she heard somebody drowned, likely crabbing and went in too deep and got caught in the current. Daddy says the tide whips under that bridge pretty fast and could suck an unaware person right in. He teaches you and Pete and Jackie Boy the word undertow and says, That’s why you never go swimming someplace unfamiliar without a grown up. You and Pete say yes sir, and Jackie Boy just keeps gnawing on a cob of silver queen corn because he’s four.
The next morning you skip watching cartoons and instead go out to the riverbank because you’re kind of sad and feeling spooky but also eager to find out more about the person who got sucked into the river. You feel the goosebumps rise when you think about the body of a dead person that could be somewhere nearby, just under the surface of the river, your river, where you’ve splashed and fished and crabbed your whole life, the place where you found sweet Mud. Now, police boats are dragging the water with nets, and divers in strange suits with air tanks like Jacques Cousteau pop through the surface every now and then.
Around lunchtime, a man who works with Daddy stops by the house to drop off a chainsaw he’s borrowed and you hear him say, “Aww, John, it was just one of them damn Mexican migrants drowned last evening.” Daddy says something about that being a shame and that he hopes the fellow turns up soon. You wonder how the man returning the chainsaw knew the migrant was from Mexico and not from Honduras or Guatemala.
Just before suppertime, they find the migrant’s body. He had drifted past your dock, because that’s where the searchers found him, down river.
You feel weird inside, mixed up in a way you can’t name. You think hard on that feeling for days, long after everyone else seems to have forgotten the drowning.
You look at the migrants in the fields and wonder if the drowned man had a child, and if he did, you wish you could have been friends with his daughter or son. You like to think maybe, somehow, you could have been helpful and kind if y’all were friends. You’d have said, I’m so sorry about your daddy, and you’d think about them being far from home. You wonder where they had a funeral, in South Carolina or back in Mexico or wherever the dead man came from. And if they buried him back in Mexico or where ever, how’d they get his body there.
That unnamed feeling never quite goes away and you think about the migrants every May around your birthday and sometimes you imagine meeting that girl in the floppy hat as a grown up. You hope it wasn’t her daddy who drifted past your house. You think of her big, brown eyes and her smile and you wish you knew her name.