Afternoons on the farm with Perry were dangerous. They were reckless yet purposeful, full of abandon, and always alive with the prospect of being brave, of proving my courage to my farm manager, Perry Pendleton, the first woman I knew who had no fear. It was a privilege to spend time with Perry, however dangerous the task, because these afternoons were rare, like purple carrots and black watermelon seeds, hidden in the earth— ringing with an electric hum of honey bees. I knew I was breaking rules being there, driving across state lines, sneaking sips of whiskey from her flask, sharing secrets as we tended to tomatoes, the sun setting its gold across our wrinkled faces. At a boarding school in the northwest corner of Connecticut, tucked between 2,000 acres of forest and river and pine, the rules were stringent— never to be broken. Boundary lines were to be strictly adhered— in daylight, bounds were, to the West, the New York State Line, to the North, the Massachusetts State Line, to the South, the Sharon Town Line, and to the East, the Housatonic River. But once the sun had set, the boundaries enclosed us to only the dormitories and main building. The lake and the farm, after dark, were strictly forbidden. But I was young, and Perry was teaching me the secrets of the earth, and I felt that indoctrinated me in service to the salacious, to the secretive, to the bold. And so I found myself frequently breaking rules. I began to sneak out of my dorm in the middle of the night to strip off all my clothes and swim across Lake Wononscopomuc, my naked body submerged in blue. I hitched rides into the various towns near school, tucked into the backs of trucks with big black dogs, began numerous hasty and half realized affairs with farmers I’d met at bookstores and coffee shops. I fell in and out of love, without reason. I thought I was daring like Perry and the earth she so loved.
The farm lay atop a steep hill to the west, and was bordered by a deep wood on the north side, surrounded by maple and pine and Farmer John’s cow pasture— he paid us in beef to use our 300 acre land for grazing because he didn’t have enough of his own. Farmers worked like that, they bargained. Perry was the best of them all, because she was ostentatiously beautiful, swore like a sailor, and didn’t take any orders from anyone but herself. South of the fields lay a horse ranch and myriad other farms, owned by various Connecticut yuppies, hidden under the guise of hearty, farmer middle age. There was Tom and his wife Birdie, who owned the horse pasture, both short, always dressed in denim, swinging riding crops, bouncing about their land, both with flaming red hair. As we worked on the farm across the road, atop the hill, we could look down on their expansive pasture, and, in the late afternoon light, we could always make out Tom and Birdie, bounding across the tall grasses and through the sparse trees atop their steeds, their red locks reflecting orange light.
There was Alan and Barbara Epstein, swanky Jews who came from old New York money, and their farm was hardly a farm at all. Alan was handsome and looked more Sephardic than Ashkenazi. Barbara had a big mess of curly brown hair, and was covered head to toe in botanical tattoos. The two of them, with lots of land but no real farming to be done, often stopped by our farm to visit Perry, because she was entrancing— crabby and crass as she talked fast about the woes of city living. They would share a beer and listen to her days in New York, eating her words. They, like Perry, had abandoned Manhattan after their kids fled to various liberal arts colleges throughout New England, and on those evenings when they came to listen to Perry (so young and stunning, so averse to a life in which she’d so succeed, bagging Wall Street workers and Trust Fund yankees), I often stopped to speak to them too.
On these nights, I’d stay well past work hours, sitting with grown ups, sipping on pink lemonade, and Perry would encourage me to tell Alan and Barbara stories— about my father moving big rocks for installations at MoMA, about his time with Warhol and at Woodstock, about my parents and the seedy New York art scene Alan and Barbara despised so much. To them I suppose I was a Jewish art snob from Nevada, tall and severe looking, with parents who dated actors like Sharon Stone and rolled joints for Stevie Nicks, and they were fascinated with me. Because of my parents, but also because of my novelty. To them I was a cowgirl who was quick with her tongue, whose sentences were fried like a surfer’s. I was an articulate desert hick who recited Chaucer and rattled off about Georgia O’keeffe, who wasn’t afraid to talk about plants and poetry. I took a liking to Barbara as well– it was her hair and her tattoos, and perhaps the stories she told reminded me of my mother, (of being alluring in her youthful glow, marrying an older man straight out of undergrad). And so they invited me to their estate each Friday for the Sabbath, elaborate meals like those of my rich grandparents and their penthouse atop the Las Vegas skyline, gold plates and gefilte fish and nova imported from Russ and Daughters every Saturday morning. Alan and Barbara were the New York Jews I always wanted to be— subtle and rugged, quietly rich, tanned tattooed arms sticking out of Carhartt overalls as if they were twenty-year-old Brooklynites, unconcerned with any sort of burial, their inked bodies barred from Jewish cemeteries, and they glowed with a frivolity I so desperately sought for myself.
Each Friday, I prayed over the candles with Barbara, made Alan laugh with jokes about things I didn’t quite understand, and felt at home, in their barn-like mansion, full of warm, tingling light. I was taught the importance of the Sabbath, of resting, and I felt whole in the knowledge that I was being good.
But whatever warmth I felt at the Epstein’s house was shadowed by Perry. By her faith in me, encouraging me to smooth talk the half assed affluent farmers that graced our valley, but also the fear I felt in her presence, the absolute awfulness of her being, and my debt to her for introducing me to not only Alan and Barbara, but to the farm. She pushed me and prodded me and gave me a place to call home— more than any dorm room or Shabbat meal ever could. She was mean and wild and free, she was everything I wanted to be— more than any other farmer, any other family. But what was most terrifying, perhaps, was that Perry expected me to rise to the occasion— to one day become just as free and fierce as she had become.
Perry was wiry and tall, she wore her dark hair in a long braid and drove a blue 1974 Ford pick up truck. She hid a knife in the back of her left work boot, between the sock and the shoe. It was a beautiful knife, with a copper handle, and she never let anyone use it. No one ever wanted to. Except me. I became, throughout my time as a farmhand, obsessed with the idea of that knife, of that piece of art, that piece of killing, tucked tightly in her shoe, so close to her calf, so close to her slender heel. It felt perfectly sacreligious, this knife, in a divine juxtaposition with her femininity, with her perfect leg. The knife was an extension of Perry— it was a tool for killing, and it was a part of her body, so that she became a sort of vulture— overlooking the life of things.
“I’m a farmer,” Perry would say, “and to be a farmer is to be a keeper of death.”
I swooned for those words, watching them spill out of her lips and freeze, middair, as if they were honey— so sweet I could lick them. Her words, her lips, and her knife.
I, too, was very tall, and talked about flowers as if they were friends, and so I stole a knife from the barn one day, and tucked it in my sock, thinking that it was phallic, thinking that it was perfectly androgenous, thinking that I could be a keeper of death one day. Dangerous and humble, in service to the cycles of the earth. I watched Perry’s knife and her long legs and I watched my own, and I felt a flutter in my heart, knowing we could, one day, be the same.
Amongst the high schoolers who worked on the farm, I had a knack for harvesting and growing and telling stories. Picking sungold tomatoes in the greenhouse, I’d tell tales of the desert, of the Rocky Mountains, of hitchhiking down the Pacific Coast Highway. Pulling potatoes from the ground, I’d weave tall tales, and our laughter rebounded across the cornfields, down the rolling hills, sending flocks of birds soaring into purple autumn skies. I think Perry saw something of herself in me, then— unmoulded. She smoked cigarettes and shot birds off the roof of the barn (that also doubled as her wooden loft), whilst I led skinny dipping pilgrimages at midnight and smuggled red wine into the dorms, hidden beneath the floorboards. We both were long and hard lined and severe looking women. We both leaned against buildings and kicked dirt up with our boots. Her dog, Maggie, a herder who wasn’t so good at her job (in that she ate lots of chickens) loved me, and sometimes, when I’d make the hike through the wood in the early morning light to write poems on the farm’s deck, Perry would watch me walking up the path lined with hay, and she’d let Maggie out of the barn, who’d run to me, and sit and doze upon my lap, the two of us dewy with half sleep, and I’d watch her body rise and fall, peacefully. I suppose that’s why she took a liking to me so quickly. Because I went to the farm to think— to carve out a piece of place, of hereness for myself. For I was there— there in the thereness of the morn. Watching the apples turn red and the maple leaves turn to maple syrup and drop, languidly, from their branches. I pressed my ear into the life of the place, and for that, I suppose, she was grateful.
One Saturday afternoon, I awoke to an email— Perry had invited me, post late night Shabbat dinner with the Epsteins, to come spend the day at the farm, without any other students. I eagerly agreed and hiked up to the barn.
We spent midday drinking coffee out in the fields, tossing squash between the two of us, placing them in big orange bins. By two o’clock, our hands were prickly and itchy from the squash toss, and our faces were red from the early winter sun. We smiled at each other, then, the two of us wiping sweat from our brows. I was warm, watching her strong hands touch her strong face, knowing I was growing strong and tanned like her.
Perry’s phone buzzed, she answered it. I heard a deep voice on the other end of the line, and as I listened to Peanuts style honking sounds, trying to piece together what was being said, I watched Perry’s face glisten with a devious glow. Her smile, one of hard work done, turned to a wry smile, a coy and frightening thing. She lifted her eyebrow, maintaining steady eye contact with me, our four eyes locked. I felt my face drop. I knew she was about to take me on an adventure.
“Okay then,” Perry replied, “we’ll be there right away. I’m bringing Sage.”
The voice on the other end of the line laughed. The man was amused.
She hung up, and smiled even wider.
“That was Oliver O’brien. We’re going to help him kill his turkeys.”
I gulped. Oliver O’brien was infamous. He was an art teacher at the school, and he was loved in the same way he was feared. An old man, perfectly moulded to live the entirety of his life in his mid sixties, Oliver was white haired and short. A portly man, he wore round tortoise shell glasses and leather vests over crisp linen shirts. He walked with his feet slightly turned outwards, and his red notebook was always full of watercolor landscapes of the farm— of Perry’s farm. One could say the two of them ran that farm together, although Oliver had land of his own and Perry was the one hired by the school to manage this monstrosity. But it was Oliver who harbored a fanatic love for the place. His dog, Penelope, waded in its various ponds, and his wife— a short and muscled woman— spent hours photographing the sunrises and sunsets on the East and West edges of the land. The two of them communed with the farm as if in matrimony— their love was whole and deep and severe. But their love came with a power, a power that not even Perry could overcome. Oliver held such sway at our school, that his approval of Ellie— and the kids that worked for her— was the only opinion that mattered in the eyes of the administration. And so as I saw it, young as I was, it was Oliver who stood between me and the farm, between me and Perry, between me and the person I wanted to be.
There was a problem, however. I knew Oliver didn’t like me. He thought I was too loud and too tall and ugly, perhaps. He knew about literature and art and the theatre— the things that I loved— and he made it a point to disagree with me, to challenge what I knew and to laugh with disdain at my tastes. He would watch me as I doodled on the bus and scoffed at my roses (the ones I’d later permanently cement on my body in hope of reclaiming myself). And so although I was confident in my love of the fantastical and theatrical (the stories Oliver O’brien thought were so very below him) and so very content in my love of these things— I knew he had to like me. I knew this was my chance.
“Good. I’m ready. I’m excited. Let’s go kill some turkeys.”
On the ride to Oliver’s land, Perry played goth punk rock, and let me drink a can of cold Budweiser, chilled from the backseat of her truck. When we got there, Oliver was standing in a leather smock, covered, already, in blood.
“Thank god you’ve come Perry!” he exclaimed, grabbing her face like a father, lightly kissing her forehead. With fondness, with love. “Hi Sage,” he looked at me sternly.
Then, we got to work. Oliver grabbing the huge, plump, Thanksgiving ready turkeys by the leg, their great wings flapping and flailing, and Perry tossing her copper plated knife in the air. Hands and knives were weapons that afternoon. Oliver would place the turkey’s head down in an upside down parking cone, nailed against a tree. The turkey would scream. I wanted, at times, to cry. Oliver and I held down the wings, one each because the turkeys were just so big that winter, and Perry, in a swift and elegant motion— like ballet, like long strokes against the Pacific waves— slid her knife through the thick throat of each turkey. Two neat slices in a V down their necks, the blood pouring out, Oliver and I flexing our muscles against the wings in their throes of death. I was content, there, aiding in the killing— in the process of being a farmer. A keeper of death. Content to be a helper. Not a farmer, but a child pretending. I watched Perry slice into turkey after turkey, her long arms gliding through the air, her blue sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, her tattoo sticking out that read— “work is love made visible.” I loved her, then, in the golden light of Oliver O’brien’s backyard, as Bill Evans played from a record player in his turquoise tiled kitchen and his wife was boiling broth upon the stove. I loved her, with her wild hair coming loose from its braid, with her chapped lips and flat chest and straight hips— an ephebe and Eve. The apple and the eater, Satan and the snake. I wanted to take a big great bite of the world she was tasting, and become a keeper of death.
“Your turn,” Oliver exclaimed, as the turkey we were holding faded into unbeing.
“Huh?” I mumbled, turning from Perry and her knife to Oliver and his hands. I looked into his icy blue eyes, and I realized what he was asking.
“Me?” I muttered, softly.
“Yes, you,” he repeated. “Show us what you can do Molasky.”
I gulped. “Uhhhhh— ok.” I managed to speak.
“Kill a turkey for us.”
“ok.” I said again.
Oliver grabbed one of the turkeys by its leg, tossing its big bloated body into the air, placing its head in the orange cone nailed to the tree. Perry grabbed one leg, he grabbed the other.
“You got this,” she said, and smiled one of her wild smiles at me.
“ok “ I repeated.
And with that, I pulled the turkey’s neck, unsheathed my measly kitchen knife from my boot (sneaking a glance at Perry, seeing that she was, to some degree, impressed) and made two deep, beautiful, bloody incisions down its neck. The turkey yelped and began to bleed out, fast. Within a minute, it was dead. The deed had been done. I looked up at Perry, and she was laughing. She was proud. And then I turned to Oliver, his face set stern, in a line.
“Alright then,” he said. He raised his eyebrow, lifting the dead turkey out of its cone, bloodied by our massacre. “Now you gotta kill a tricky one.”
Oliver walked over to three remaining turkeys, huddled in fear.
“This one’s a goner,” he said, grabbing a meek looking turkey. “She’s small, but tough. She got hurt by her siblings, while they were fighting, trying to flee.” And then I noticed it. Upside down, I saw the turkey’s gouged side, all sinew and tissue, bone sticking out. She was crying out in pain. My body went numb.
“Kill her,” Oliver commanded.
Again, Oliver placed this turkey in the cone, and Perry held her other wing. I pulled on her neck, and could feel her wince. A part of me cried out to her, and I wanted to say no. Oliver was hiding a smile, he was holding her wing hard. I could see him pressing his hand into her open wound. I saw his cruelty, and I wanted to spit upon his feet, to punch his small, round bespeckled face.
I whispered, “Thank you, you’ll be feeding us,” to the wounded turkey, as if that would suffice, and with that, I sliced. But this time, unlike the other, the knife didn’t make a clean cut. This time, I faltered, and I cut the wounded animal unevenly. It was sure to be a slow, painful death.
She began to thrash, the blood trickled out, slowly, into the small turkey’s eyes, as if she were crying all in red. Redness all in my chest too.
“What do I do?!” I screamed.
“You fucked up.” Oliver said, resolute. “You just have to let her die slowly. Might take ten minutes or more.” He remarked this as fact, looking at me as he held her hard, his thumb digging deeper and deeper into her wounded wing, her gashed torso, worsening the pain.
“No!” I yelled. I grabbed her neck again. I whispered some prayer, my hands trembled. I sliced again, looking at Oliver with a steadiness, but my shaking hand betrayed me, and I fumbled again, opening her neck more but not at her artery. She just kept bleeding.
He laughed, then. A cruel laugh. At me, and at the sad, bloodied animal nailed against the tree. She looked like an upside down Jesus, to me, then. I, a Mary Magdalene, a Mother Mary— grieving at the foot of a lover, of a foe, of a friend. Paralyzed, I stood in front of the turkey, in front of the first woman I ever truly loved, in front of a man who wanted me to feel small, and I did— I felt small. Crumpled, like a flower, stepped on, like a leaf.
“Kill it Perry!” I yelled. I was screaming. “Kill it! I can’t, I just can’t.”
“No, you can’t,” Oliver repeated. “Guess the first was just beginners luck.”
He won. He’s won, I thought. I can’t be a farmer. I can’t be a keeper of death, a protector of the cycle of things, a watcher of the world— the way things grow. He’s proved me wrong. I’m wrong.
“PERRY!” I screamed again, looking up towards her with tears in my eyes.
And then I saw it. Her hand, outstretched. Perry’s long, slender hand, offering me a token. Her knife. Her copper handled knife, the one no one was ever allowed to touch, a magic wand, outstretched in the space between us. A sharp, glamorous blade. A peeler and a piercer, metal so cold it could burn. An olive branch, a letter, a thought in the lushness of night descending. Her knife, outstretched. A beacon. I reached my hand out, and touched the handle. Perry nodded her head, softly, and that was my cue. I took the knife, clutched it between my hands, and felt her power swell within me. I looked at Oliver, with bravery, with ferocity, with a wildness I thought only existed in Perry’s slender frame, and I made two new, sexy slices down the dying turkey’s neck, through her large artery, and her blood came gushing out. In an instant, her body went limp. I looked down, my white t-shirt covered in freckles of blood.
We unloaded the turkey from the cone into the bin, ready to be dunked and plucked and carved and cooked, in silence. I killed two more turkeys that late afternoon, as the sun fell lazily between the oak trees, listening to jazz emanate from Oliver’s cabin, and we plucked them all in silence, our fingers numb from hot steam meeting the cold evening air. The trees whistled and whoosed and whined. Oliver’s thin wife fed us bone broth and lasagna, after we had washed up, and lent me a soft grey Grateful Dead tank top. Back in her truck, Perry played Billy Joel, and I remembered some remnant of my father, of the Sabbath— and I thought of rest. Perry dropped me off back at my dorm, and I handed her back her knife before I left the truck.
“No,” she whispered, in the dark space between us, lighted only by a distant streetlight, “you can keep it.”
“No but’s,” she whispered, again. “You can keep it for a while. It’s yours, at least for now. You did good, today.”
I nodded in gratitude. I left her car in the cold night, walking swiftly back to my dorm. Back inside my room, I stripped off my jeans, and layed down in my twin bed, the hairs on my arm standing on edge, in the Grateful Dead tank top and underwear, feeling winter blow its breath over my thighs, and I clutched the knife to my chest, alive with the prospect of someday being brave. It was late Saturday night, and I smiled— I had been a very bad Jew that day.