Time passes quickly in the summertime. When we weren’t busy weeding the gardens or making adobe bricks, we went riding. Daniel learned to ride a young gelding named Cricket and was soon capable of riding alone, at any pace. He really was a natural with animals and had impressive balance. In fact, his sense of balance was better than any of ours and before he left us, Daniel could ride Cricket bareback just as well as he could in a saddle.
Cricket had been given his name because he was always jumping sage brush out in the pasture when he was just a yearling. It was a game for him. But when Daniel heard this, he decided we should make a real jumper out of Cricket. The year before, I had taught Caramel how to jump logs so that I didn’t have to worry about getting thrown when we galloped down forest trails that might have newly fallen trees in the path.
We started by putting a lightweight pole on the ground in the path down the valley where we often rode. I rode Caramel at an easy lope and when she got to the pole, she stretched out her stride just a little and crossed it without a pause. Cricket and Daniel came behind us. Cricket hesitated just a little and then also cleared the pole without a problem. We turned around and crossed it again. This time he did not hesitate, he just jumped over without a pause.
Jake was on the ground and he raised the pole just a few inches, propping it up loosely on two rocks. A little bit of light could be seen under the pole. I jumped Caramel over it and Cricket came behind. He also jumped it without a problem.
Jake raised the pole a foot high using two firewood logs on end. It was too much of a height gain for Cricket and he slowed down as he approached it and danced in front of it for a minute before suddenly leaping over it in a very cricket-like manner that nearly unseated Daniel. But the next time they approached the pole, Cricket went right over.
It was funny to see Cricket realize what we were doing. He got so excited about the lesson he would turn around of his own accord and race back toward the pole again and again. Daniel’s face was shining with excitement.
A few times, one of the horse’s back hooves would knock the pole as they jumped over it and the pole would fall off, but they got better and better at gauging the jump. Soon, Cricket was out-jumping Caramel by a good six inches. When the pole was three feet off the ground, I decided to quit. Caramel could jump high enough to cross whatever obstacle we might find on a trail.
But Daniel kept urging Cricket to new heights.
“Daniel, be careful. If he doesn’t make the jump, you could both be hurt,” I said, worried.
“He’s not even hesitating anymore,” Daniel argued. “He’s amazing. He’s really got the idea.”
The pole was four feet high before Daniel quit for the day.
We rubbed the horses down, gave them some extra oats for their hard work and tramped into the house. Daniel walked between Jake and I. He’d grown since being at our house. He was taller and his jeans were too short.
Mom must have noticed as well because she told him later she would use Dad’s computer to order him some more clothes from the internet.
“Us kids,” as Jake says, were sitting at the table eating chips and bean dip22 and drinking cold Navajo tea when Dad came out of his office. He looked so sad and distracted, we all stopped talking and just looked at him. He ran his fingers through his hair and left it standing on end.
“Sometimes life doesn’t go the way you expect it to,” he said, as if to himself. “Sometimes you look forward and can’t see where you’re going; then you look back and have a hard time believing where you used to be.”
“Like rock climbing,” Jake nodded agreeably as though Dad’s train of thought was crystal clear to him. Dad looked up and slowly nodded. He appeared to focus and glanced around the table.
“Then there are times when you realize that you haven’t made any headway at all. You’re in the same place, fighting the same ledge and it’s getting dark out.”
“What’s wrong, Jon?” Mom asked, reaching across the corner of the table to grasp one of his hands. His fingers closed around hers and he looked at her sadly.
“I just found out that over 250,000 East Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide during the last decade.” 23
“What?” she exclaimed. “Two hundred and fifty thousand?”
“Oh, Dad!” I said. “Why? What happened?”
“What is happening now,” Dad said, stressing the last word, “it’s ongoing. Indian farmers were told that genetically modified cotton seed was pest resistant and so most of them went into debt to buy the new seeds, which were much more expensive than the traditional seed they had been using.”
“Why did they buy GMO seeds?” Jake asked.
“They’re isolated and poor, they don’t know what’s going on around the world. Salesmen came in with full colored posters of Indian deities bringing them perfect cotton and posters of rich fields of cotton in America, telling the people they would grow cotton like what they saw in the posters if they bought the GMO seed. And in some places, all that the seed banks sold was GMO seed,” Dad sighed, and continued,
“But, life over there is hard to begin with. Many of the farming areas were already suffering drought and pest problems that were giving them poor crops. When they heard about the better GMO seed, they went into debt to buy it.”
“And couldn’t pay back the money lenders,” Mom said, nodding sadly.
“But why did they kill themselves?!” I exclaimed. “What made them want to die?”
Dad shook his head. “From what I’ve read, there is a strong what will people think undercurrent that controls people’s actions in India. To die is less shameful than to fail. Because they are poor and insignificant, it is hard—nearly impossible—for them to make a plea for help that anyone will hear. To commit suicide is a statement of warning to their own people. It’s like saying Don’t go this way! It seems that, for some of them anyway, they are fighting with the last thing they have left; their lives.”
“Why didn’t the GMO seed grow?” Daniel asked.
“Good question,” Dad said, glancing over at him. “They weren’t told that the genetically modified cotton seed needed twice as much water in order to grow. They were already suffering some crop loss from drought. And, it turned out that the seeds were not pest resistant after all and were eaten by bollworm.”
“Holy crap!” Will exclaimed, shaking his head furiously.
“But why would a failed crop make them commit suicide?” I insisted, unable to imagine what could possibly be worse than taking your own life.
“When they lose their crops,” Dad explained, “they can’t pay back their debts. As a result, they lose their land to the money lenders and their wives and children face slavery and extreme poverty—” He broke off, blinking away the tears in his eyes.
“They were already poor,” Mom said. “But with traditional seed, if a crop is poor, they can just plant more seed and try again. But with GMO seed, there is a terminator gene that prevents the seed from reproducing again. They have to buy more seed every year and the seed is very expensive.”
“How—how do they die?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Many of them die in their barren cotton fields from drinking the pesticide they bought to stop the bollworm,” Dad replied, quietly.
“Oh, Jon. Can’t anyone stop it?” Mom asked.
“I can’t,” Dad sighed. “And that’s what bothers me.”
Will abruptly walked to the front windows, where he stood with his hands shoved into his pockets.
“God damn them,” he said quietly, and I knew he was angry.
“That’s the first time I ever heard him curse,” Daniel commented, looking at Will’s back in surprise.
“He didn’t curse. He was praying,” I explained.
“Oh,” Daniel replied, subdued. He looked around at us all.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “You guys didn’t do it.”
But Dad sighed again, shaking his head. “I need to go pray,” he said, finally, looking at Mom. She squeezed his hand.
“Go,” she said. “Pray.”
Dad got up and walked out the door.
“Where’s he going?” Daniel asked.
“To pray,” I said. “There’s a cave a couple miles from here. He goes there to pray.”
“Will he come back?” Daniel asked, looking worried.
“Of course,” I answered, puzzled by his question.
“I don’t know. In a day or two.”
“A couple of days!” Daniel exclaimed. “What does he eat? What does he drink? Does he come home to sleep?”
I shook my head. Did it sound that strange? All my life, I remember Dad going to the cave to pray when something went wrong. He had a waterproof chest up there with a blanket and notebook in it full of his thoughts and prayers. And when he came back, he would know what he was supposed do and have a clear perspective again.
“Who does he pray to?” Daniel asked, going to the door to watch Dad walk into the pines. “Jesus and Mary?”
Will turned around in his chair to look at Daniel. “He prays to the one that made him: the one who has all the answers.”
“How does he pray?” Daniel asked, turning around to look at us. “Does he have them memorized?”
“Memorized!” exclaimed Susanna, laughing. Daniel’s glance in her direction was distracted.
“You are asking Will questions right now,” Mom said, smiling at Daniel. “Did you memorize those questions so you could recite them to Will?”
“No. But I’m not praying to Will.”
Mom laughed and nodded her head. “People used to say ‘I pray thee, give me some bread.’ Or whatever they needed. ‘Pray’ meant to ask for something, to plead or request. It’s an old-fashioned word. Maybe it would be better if we said ‘Dad went to ask God for the answers.’”
“Oh.” Daniel replied, looking around at us, his gaze falling on Will. “Doooes—God—talk back?” he asked with a funny smile at his own question.
“Yeeees. . . But not exactly like me answering you right now,” Will replied. “It’s sort of like . . . well, as you pray and listen, God sometimes talks back to your mind. . . like with with words or images. And then you’ll know the answer and you’ll know it was him telling you.”
“Have you done that?” Daniel turned and asked me suddenly. I nodded.
“Does it always work?” he asked.
“No.” I shook my head. “It’s not always the answer I want or am expecting. That’s how I know it’s not my own mind.”
Daniel was quiet and I wondered what he was thinking. Will stood up and started toward the door.
“I’m going back to the shop,” he said.
“Will, what’s rebirth?” Jake asked, following him.
“What’s Hindu?” Susanna added, and the three of them went out the front door.
“I’m going to go see Grandpa, okay?” I asked Mom. She nodded. Daniel followed me out the back door.
“Do you mind if I go along?” he asked.
“Sure, whatever,” I answered, vaguely. T-Rex followed us, attacking Daniel’s heels playfully and then ran out ahead of him, down the trail.
“Why is your Dad so upset?” Daniel asked.
“250,000 people are dead,” I said, “not to mention how many women and children went into slavery after the men died.”
“But what does it have to do with you guys?”
I stopped on the path and looked at him. Could he really be that clueless? I stepped toward him.
“Hold still a sec,” I said, and reached for the collar of his shirt. He bent his head forward and I stood on my tiptoes to read aloud, “100% Cotton.” Then I turned around and put my hand over my shoulder to turn the tag of my shirt outward. “What does it say?” I asked.
He leaned over me and read aloud, “Cotton-Poly blend.” Then he asked in a thoughtful voice, “Do you think it came from India?”
“Likely,” I said. “At least possibly.” I looked at him and shook my head. “Don’t you get it? It’s like a guy was murdered and his belongings taken from him. And we’re wearing them.”
Daniel didn’t say anything. We walked in silence down the hill.
“But—nobody else cares,” he said, at last. I turned on him furiously and grabbed him by the front of his shirt with both hands.
“That’s the problem!” I exclaimed, trying not to cry. “Nobody cares. So every year more of them are murdered. Because nobody cares!”
To my surprise, Daniel turned quite pale.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry I got mad.” He shook his head and blinked rapidly.
“I never thought of it that way,” he said. “That’s why your dad—what does your dad do, Mona? What kind of work?” I looked at him in surprise, not following his train of thought.
“He’s a programmer. Freelance.”
“How does he know about the GMO stuff?” Daniel asked. I was trembling a little from having gotten so mad all of the sudden. I remembered a phrase Susanna says, “I totally freaked myself out.”
“His work here is about purity of genetics,” I answered, taking a deep breath to calm myself. “He’s always researching pure genetics for the sake of our farm. Most of the GMO stuff he finds out through internet news. Dad has a friend out east of Albuquerque that introduced us to the line-breeding information. We got our first cows and our bull from him. His herd descended from a bull that was from twelve generations of genetic purity!”
“Sorry, you lost me.” Daniel said, shaking his head.
We were almost to Grandpa’s cabin, but the conversation was interesting, so I kept walking up the valley instead and picked flowers along the way. “All of our seeds and all of our animals are genetically pure,” I explained. “For instance, the cows are fifteenth generation line-bred cattle from Jersey, England. Their bloodline is pure.”
“Pure of what?” Daniel asked, shaking his head in confusion.
“Pure, like. . .” I paused to think about how to explain line-breeding. “Like, they haven’t been bred to various other cattle lines to develop enormous quantities of milk or grow to be huge so they’ll provide a lot of meat. Instead, they’ve been bred to maintain a pure bloodline that results in health, long life and easy births.” I hesitated, wondering if it made sense.
“Oh,” Daniel said. “Like genetic preservation, rather than genetic modification.”
“Yeah.” I was impressed. “That’s really good. You should tell that to Dad. Basically, the bloodlines of these cattle can be traced back several hundred years, just like our corn seed. They’re pure.”
Daniel picked a handful of Indian paintbrush and handed it to me. I added it to my bouquet of purple asters and goldenrod.
“I didn’t know,” he said, looking at me earnestly. “I didn’t know about all this stuff and what they’ve been doing out there—in GMO land. Your Dad has a really cool purpose—like, a mission. I hope he succeeds.”
“Will is going to do it too,” I said, turning around and walking back toward Grandpa’s cabin. “And I’m going to help him.”
Daniel didn’t answer and I glanced over at him. He looked sad.
“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m probably going to have to leave soon.” He looked out over the valley. “My dad finished his classes and thinks he’ll get parole soon. He wants me to come home and go back to school this fall.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t imagine having to leave here.
“I don’t want to leave,” Daniel confessed, finally turning to look at me. “I wish I could stay here.”
“I wish you could stay too,” I said, and then was embarrassed, wondering how that sounded. Daniel got his twinkly, mischievous grin and handed me another handful of flowers.
“Well,” he said with a satisfied chuckle. “That was more than I was hoping for.”
I couldn’t help laughing. Grandpa came out on the porch and leaned on his cane. He gave us a stern look and shook his head.
“I’m old,” he said, “I don’t laugh anymore.” I looked up at him in surprise.
“That’s not true—” I started to say when Grandpa interrupted me,
“I don’t laugh any less either,” he said, then he winked at us and sat down in his chair, laughing at his own joke.