'The Harvest' written by Amanda Harris. Inspired by John Dyer's painting 'Sun Dried Faces, Italy' and commissioned by The Eden Project for World Food Day.
This unique collaboration of Eden asking John Dyer to paint the landscape and food stories of Italy and also commissioning a contemporary storyteller to interpret that painting has resulted in this unique piece of art and writing.
For the last few weeks she had paced her days through corridors of amber sunflowers; acolytes of the sun, their heads trained to follow its course across the sky. Harvest was approaching and Maria del Angelo, had to judge the moment; too early and the oil would be bitter, too late and the seeds could turn to mould. The timing was crucial. The browning heads now heavy with ripened seeds, were beginning to bow, submissive to fate.
“Maria, Maria, telefono!”
She tightened the string that was holding up her skirt and ran between the crowd of plants back to the house.
“Maria it’s me. Did you get my parcel? I’ve been missing you so much I had to send you something.” It was Constanza the eldest sister, now living in Rome. All the children, save Maria, had left the small farm in Umbria.
“The parcel hasn’t arrived yet. I’ve been checking the sunflowers. We should harvest any day. Well to tell the truth, we harvest when we can this year”
“What’s the problem, isn’t Giovanni Santini helping?”
“No, he’s gone to university. The Mancini boys are tossing pizzas in Perugia. Dad’s arthritis is bad so … so there are 4 Albanians arriving any time. They’ll sleep in the Barn and take their meals with us. There is no-one left round here to harvest except old men … and me.”
“Porcamiseria! Do they speak Italian? Have you met them? Are they OK?”
It had been a stifling hot day when the gang master had arrived. The dark pines engulfed with heat, blistering with burning potential. They had sat at the wooden table outside the front door – Father, Maria and Sergio, his eyes and golden tooth glinting with expectation. Mother had brought them peach liquor and almond cakes, then disappeared indoors. Maria knew she was sitting by the shutters, listening. Father had been unable to speak. So it was Maria who had negotiated with the stranger for four men to harvest their sunflowers. She prim but firm; he bullyingly confident:
“I send you fine strong men eh, pretty lady!” He nearly crushed her hand as the deal was done.
As far as the eye could see the young plants reaching for the sun. A bounteous crop in a desert of men.
Maria put down the phone to her sister and sought her face in the mirror. Hair forced under a scarf, skin creased by sun and wind, clothes shabby. The skirt had been Constanza’s before she’d left for Rome and it was still too big. How she missed them all. She had never realised how lonely it would be without them.
Any day now there were strangers coming to work on the farm; strangers she couldn’t even speak to. They would bring their own harvester. Would it fit in their rows? How much would they waste? Would they know what to do? Had she asked if they knew about sunflowers? How would she explain? What sort of food would they eat? Should she let them eat indoors or stay out? Should she hide away the silver bracelet her aunt had left her?
A loud rap on the door, knocked her fears aside. The postman with a large parcel. Under the brown paper a note:
These are so cool in Rome!
Carefully opening the lid of the box, she pulled back the tissue paper, shiny like mother of pearl, to reveal a nestled pair of sleek leather ankle boots. The toe tapered like a pen nib to a fine point, the stiletto heel so fine she feared it would snap beneath her weight. She picked up one boot and placed it against her leathery skin, its surface almost liquid with softness. She imagined her sister in a pencil skirt, fitted jacket, wearing these boots as she walked confidently to work, battering a feminine rhythm on the Roman pavements. Beneath Maria’s faded floral skirt peeped battered trainers, one with no laces. What could she do with a pair of boots like this, except take them out and stroke them?
“Maria, i Albani sono arrivati!”
A large grey truck was rumbling up the lane, hunched men sitting in rows in the back.
But they were too early. Today wasn’t right, the crop wasn’t ready. She knew it wasn’t. But what could she do, if she sent them away they may not come back.
She looked at the boots. Why save them for Rome? Her flattened feet winced at being so constrained. With accumulating dignity she rose and wobbled a bit as she made for the door. Outside the dust was settling where the truck had halted, the fleeing, screeching chickens had resumed their scratching. The midday sun beat down hard, shooting laser sharp rays at the boots. “Welcome” called Maria. The assembled group of scruffy men stood awed at the statuesque figure who greeted them, for a long moment there was silence, then one stepped forward and said “You do us honour, Signorina”
© Amanda Harris