Volume 35, Number 2

Jane and John Doe Labor in Paradise

Sol Paz Kistler

Strong northwesterly winds in the vicinity of Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes have picked up loose volcanic ash erupted during the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption and are carrying it to the southeast this morning.

Kinga takes off one leather work glove to read the USGS alert from the Alaska Volcano Observatory on her phone, but the notification is not relevant to the active volcano she is currently standing on. The active volcano Kinga is currently standing on is so massive the weight of it bends the ocean floor as it simultaneously rises up from the depths.

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

Kinga imagines loose ash falling in a stark, wintery land. There, fumaroles of sulfuric gas spiral upward in a place so far from Kinga, she had never even heard of it. Kinga wipes the sweat from her brow. Mineral sunscreen stains her leather gloves.

Kinga arrived on the island with the Kona snow. Related to gardenia, coffee plants have delicate, fragrant white flowers that let themselves loose to flutter in the cool mountain air when in bloom. At night on the mountain, Kinga drove with the windows down on the winding roads. The night air was full of the scent of coffee in bloom, banyan trees green with rain, cigarettes mixing with weed smoke, gasoline and ocean salt. A local light pollution ordinance means this part of the island has the darkest skies in the nation, so only a small tunnel from her dim headlights illuminated the feral pigs dashing off the road and back underneath the tall sugarcane grass.

Work/live the world’s most isolated population center. Beautiful tropical setting, rent included. All you have to do is work at the coffee farm and enjoy the island.

Kinga’s day is waking before the sun rises, working the farm until just before sunset. No local regulations exist that have to allow for any type of meal or rest breaks of any kind in the state of Hawaii. Without bathroom breaks in the hot sun all day, the goal is to sip water, but never indulge. Kinga’s co-workers drink Mountain Dew and Monster Energy drinks and nothing else: No agua, no baño. Agricultural employers may choose twenty weeks out of the year when their workers are exempt from any overtime pay, up to forty-eight hours. From roughly August to December, just as the season peaks, this will be the case.

The house Kinga stays in is a shared unit, with migrant workers that come and go with the coffee-picking seasons. It is a plain building that used to operate as a school for Micronesian children displaced by nuclear testing on their home islands. A rain catchment tank holds water that is not safe to drink; the electricity is either out or prone to flickering power surges. Kinga rents a space that used to be the old office of the school. It is just enough square footage to have a few items stacked in a corner and a mattress on the floor. The bathroom and kitchen areas are shared with the rest of the building. Her rent is $2,800 a month.

At night, Kinga could feel the jungle surrounding her without seeing it. Choirs of coqui frogs, roosters, cockroaches, and rats rustle through the leaves. In her room at night a solo mosquito whines close to her ear. In the morning, Madagascar day geckos will move freely about the walls looking for a patch of sunshine to warm themselves in.

Still night out, Kinga and her coworkers leave the shared housing unit in the bed of a truck where they are then dropped off one by one to work different fields. The truck will only return to take them to a different field to work, or else at the end of the day to drive them all home. Working the field alone, Kinga’s job is to pick only the reddest, ripest coffee cherry, because she will only be paid by the pound for the coffee beans that are not sorted out and discarded. She learns to work fast, grabbing only the best-looking cherry, leaving the rest to finish ripening on the branches. As she moves in and out of the rows of coffee, Kinga is watched by a Jackson’s chameleon; its binocular eyes slowly rotate as it watches her working gloves moving between the glossy green coffee leaves.

One day a week, Kinga works in the nursery, grafting coffee plants alongside the only two permanent residents of a shared home on the farm. Kalena was born and raised on this part of the island. She has lived and worked on this farm for nearly a decade, and her boyfriend, Diego, lives with her. They work from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week, with no breaks. Their rent is automatically deducted from their pay. Whatever remains is left in cash inside an envelope that the owner of the farm leaves inside their mailbox at the end of the month. I don’t even understand what my hourly wage is, Kalena explains to Kinga one morning while they are mixing vermiculite and potting soil in the nursery.

Work/live programs like these often seek out people who have difficulty being hired and finding stability, and Kalena and Diego both have criminal records. The idea of living and working on a Hawaiian farm with rent included was alluring, but they no longer make enough to afford a car.

Kalena grows most of the food they eat, and Diego supplements by hunting pigs at night. Their home no longer has glass on the windows, the undrinkable water comes in from a rain catchment tank out back, and their electricity was never restored to the dilapidated house after the island’s last storm. Diego cooks their meat and boils water for drinking in a pit dug in the ground, which he keeps an eye on between working the coffee roaster and the fields. Still, Diego and Kalena welcome the newcomers every season, as well as the returning migrant workers here to pick the coffee by scraping enough cash together for a case of beer, bringing out a guitar and talking story until the early morning hours.

Kalena teaches Kinga how to propagate coffee from beans and how to mix the soil to the consistency different plant roots desire. Kalena’s strong arms can scoop up heaps of soil from the wheelbarrow over and over for hours at a time without tiring. Diego doesn’t say much. He is always on the move to and from the nursery and throughout the fields. Every morning, he stops by each worker to greet them with a gentle shoulder pat: Thank you for being here. Without a single day off a week and no money to afford a car themselves, Kalena and Diego haven’t left the farm in over three years.

Sometimes after work, Kinga will walk down the side of the highway to dive off pāhoehoe lava rocks into the Pacific Ocean. Here she is suspended in the turquoise waters and surrounded by clouds of fluttering yellow tang, moorish idol, triggerfish and butterflyfish. She will float near the surface of the water, following a male Bullethead Parrotfish as it scrapes algae off dead coral, the fragments of which are excreted as white sand.

One hot morning in the fields, Kinga sees a hawk gliding overhead, clutching a mouse in its talons. At the end of the day, she checks in with Kalena, who is grafting coffee plants in the nursery, and tells her about the hawk sighting. In Hawaiian, we call it 'io. Later in bed, Kinga looks up the Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio (Buteo solitarius), her phone light glowing close to her face. She reads about its diet and habitat, its flight on broad wings; she even listens to a clip of its shrill call. She falls asleep imagining what it is like to be able to soar so high above the land: a piercing frown, scanning everything below, the length of your feathers gently feeling for the patterns in the air currents.

Kinga’s first paycheck arrives, and she is barely able to cover her rent, so she takes on another job part time as a livestock worker on a bee farm. Now, in the mornings that she doesn’t work the coffee farm, she will begin her day farther down south on the island.

In the morning, she starts the tin smoker with strips of newspaper and wooden pellets. She walks down the rows of hives, stacked wooden boxes high as a dresser, opening each one slowly to the hum of the bees, placating them with smoke as she presses fresh protein patties into each one, removing dead bees, debris and honeycomb frames full of larvae. Feral pigs wander up and down the aisles in the early morning mist to eat the remnants of discarded protein patties tossed aside from the hives.

Later in the afternoon, Kinga will work in the grafting house. Inside, it is as hot as a sauna, and here Kinga will work each frame full of larvae by setting it up at an angle underneath a hot lamp. Her reading glasses will slide off the end of her nose in the heat as she looks for specimens to graft. Delicately, she lifts the larvae from the royal jelly and drops it gently into a cell, or one cup in a row of plastic cups attached to a wooden frame. After each cup is done, Kinga drapes the frame in a damp cloth to keep the humidity inside each cell.

As she works, a bright green gecko creeps from behind the wooden frame and positions himself motionless on the edge and ever so slowly its tongue goes in and out of the honeycomb, licking the sweetness from the corners of the frame. By the end of the day, the hives are all opened one by one for the last time, inserting the frames of grafted cells for the bees to raise as new queens.

The next shift on the bee farm is spent as a queen catcher. In an isolated field, Kinga positions herself on a small stool in front of a wooden box filled with bees the size of a shoebox called a nuc. Work in the nucs is done with bare hands to ensure the queens are not crushed in the process. Kinga reaches her hand into the buzzing mass of bees, gently cradling the queen, which is able to sting her over and over again repeatedly without dying. To Kinga, the bee stings feel like a hot cigarette being put out on her skin. From here, Kinga places the angry queen inside a small mesh cage the size of a stick of chalk. Each queen receives a small piece of sugary food rolled into a ball for her journey. New cups with larvae are replaced in each nuc so the bees will hatch and raise a new young queen. Domestic queens are shipped out; if virgin queens are found in the nucs, they are removed and crushed.

A few nucs, after sensing that the queen is missing, swarm out of their nuc and onto a nearby tree branch; their humming is the sound of them discussing what to do next without a queen in the hive. A few of Kinga’s coworkers surround the buzzing mass with Super Soakers pointed at the bees swarming the branches. Using the water guns, the bees begin to drop in clumps on the ground. From there, they are scooped up in armfuls and placed back inside their nuc, this time replacing a domestic queen so they stay put.

At midday on her second shift, the sun in the dry field is beating down unrelentingly, and Kinga has drunk all her water and finds herself pacing, furtively glancing around the field for somewhere to relieve herself in private. She tells her coworker, Juana, who tries to show her a patch of field with tall grass. She tells her in broken English that she will try to keep watch, but just as Kinga pulls her coveralls down to her ankles, the shadow of her field manager, Miguel, falls over her. He tells her to stand up and put her clothes on, that there are no breaks of any kind. But Kinga has already started to relieve herself, and she is squatting close to the ground, bees crawling on her exposed flesh. Miguel kicks dust at her in disgust and walks away. The other workers in the field have stopped their work and have looked over at the sound of a raised voice. Kinga lowers her eyes from them, feeling hot tears prick her eyes in embarrassment. She focuses only on the smell of dust mixing with urine, the swelling of bees and ocean waves breaking against the shoreline. Tears melt into the droplets of sweat on her cheeks.

The next morning, Kinga is withdrawn, trying not to make eye contact with any of her coworkers on the field with her yesterday, but Juana and Marybell pull her aside and show her where the adult diapers are stacked on the shelf in the restroom. They help her into her beekeeping suit and use a roll of duct tape around her ankles and wrists to keep bees out. They tuck in her collar just right so that her neck is secure. They have written down on a slip of paper: Calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, Benadryl for her to purchase at the drugstore to ease her bee stings. They tell Kinga that with time, her body might eventually become accustomed to the bee venom and might no longer react. Both women have been farming bees for so long, their grandchildren are now grown. No matter what, they warn, about seven days after being stung, the bee sting will itch so badly, it will keep you awake all night. Like a mosquito bite on steroids, says Marybell.

At lunchtime, the ladies use the ice packs from their lunch boxes to ice down swollen stings. Edward, Franny, and Isabela offer Kinga pineapple slices, spiced mango wedges and tamales. Mongooses slink in between lava rocks, sniffing the air, hoping for discarded bits of food to be tossed their way. Kinga’s coworkers explain that the owners of these fields are haoles living in California, and they work in real estate. They start with government subsidized land and begin their business in livestock and agriculture. They find desirable ocean facing spots, set up some bee hives and chip away at the local laws in order to change these lots into residential properties, flipping them one day for a huge sum. A few fields even have empty, built houses sitting on them already in anticipation of their legal success.

After work, Kinga walks to the drugstore to purchase her own ice packs, food items to share at lunch and medicine for her stings. She lingers in the aisles trying to think of what treats she can buy to share at lunch when she overhears a tourist couple complaining about the price of Kona coffee.

Honey from the island makes a nice gift, Kinga offers self-consciously. ’Ōhi’a lehua is endemic to the islands, so the honey made from its nectar can only be found here.

The couple gapes at Kinga. The haole woman looks her up and down before skeptically announcing, I can get honey at home for much cheaper. Everything here is so overpriced.

Kinga walks away, embarrassed for speaking up, and feeling the first signs of a urinary tract infection caused by wearing the adult diaper all day. She thinks about how a bee must visit over 4,000 flowers in order to produce one tablespoon of honey.

Sometimes after the coffee farm, Kinga catches a ride to work a shift at the honey house with Marybell and Juana. Here, the three of them rotate stations: one of them loads the frames full of honey, while another places them inside the large honey extractor. The last one brings in crates full of hive frames heavy with honey and carries the empties away. 

Kinga finds that she is fast as a frame loader, and as she grips the sides of each frame brimming with honey, her fingers squish into the waxy honeycomb, and the silken honey glides down her wrists. Bees follow them inside the hot honey house, drinking in honey from the frames as they load them. Black flies swarm inside with the bees.

As the sun begins its descent in the sky, the golden hour light filters into the apricot room, and streamers of ocherous flypaper twist in the sunlight. The sunburst of those last amber moments of liquid light intensify, and Kinga thinks about how Egyptians used to enrobe their dead in honey for the afterlife.

During this work, Kinga has multiple loose bee stingers wedged in the skin between her fingers, their venom sacks still pumping into her. As she works, she pulls and loads and pulls and loads, stopping every so often to expertly flick the stinger and venom sack from her skin. Her hands are swollen from stings, her fingers can barely grip the coffee beans anymore on days when she picks.

Later that evening when she gets home, Kinga is not able to remove one of her boots. A bee, angry to find itself trapped between the leather and her ankle was stinging her, as she stood through the heat of the day. And now, her foot has swollen so badly, she has to cut her boot off. Without another pair of boots, Kinga has to duct tape them back together for the time being until she can afford another pair.

Resting her foot with ice packs she reads the letter that has been slid under her door, informing her that her rent has increased and next month will cost an additional $800. Tenants in the building have already begun to move out upon receiving their letters. Some have already booked plane tickets, their Hawaii experiment over with, ready to return to their normal lives on the mainland. Some have decided to live inside their cars, unable to find any other affordable places to rent on the island.

The next evening, riding home in the truck bed, a man waves at Kinga from a beaten-up Prius parked on the side of the road with a sun-bleached towel draped across the windows for shade. The man is sitting inside the car, brushing his teeth, spitting in the dirt. As he waves, Kinga recognizes him as her former across-the-way neighbor from the apartments. She waves back as they pass.

A few weeks from now, a storm will hit the island, and the tree that he is parked under will drop a branch on his windshield, crushing him in waves of glass and wood. His last moments will be feeling the hurricane force winds whip across his exposed cheeks. Seafoam green chunks of windshield glass, leaves, and droplets of rain will lift in the wind around him.

Kinga is slowly picking coffee in the hot field. Her eyes are tired, she barely grips each cherry as she pulls it off the branches. Coming up the mountain, Kinga watches a beaten-up white Ford truck stirring up the dry dust as it makes its way closer to her. The men in the truck are not the men that drive her to and from the farm. They drive as close as they can get in the lava rocks, and a young man hangs out the side, telling Kinga she better get in because the owner wants her to work a different field. Kalena has warned Kinga that human trafficking has been occurring on the islands, especially for young native girls and women who work alone in the fields. Kinga scans the rows of coffee, frozen, aware of how alone she is.

The old man driving the truck is smoking, holding the steering wheel and looking straight ahead, the younger sun-kissed blond man is insisting, telling Kinga that her boss will fire her if she doesn’t get in. The truck begins to creep closer and closer, and the young man begins to open his door. Kinga takes off running, dashing in between the most tightly packed coffee plants the truck will not be able to drive between.

We’ve got a runner! Kinga hears in the distance, and even with her swollen foot, she is already out of the fields and into the jungle brush, crawling low in the overgrown sugarcane grasses. She crouches low to the earth. The truck continues its sweep up and down the coffee rows, the men shouting for her to come out of hiding.

Staying low in the sugarcane grass, the skin on Kinga’s foot is nearly bursting from pressure inside her duct-taped boot. She feels how swollen her bladder is from holding in urine all day. She hears the sound of boots approaching over volcanic basalt. She closes her eyes and imagines the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, of that large cloud of ash ballooning into the troposphere.

Large wings, ambient conditions and an adaptive increase in hemoglobin-oxygen affinity means that some hawks can soar higher in altitude than ash cloud drifting in the winds somewhere in Alaska. Some hawks have even been known to fly higher than the stratosphere. Kinga thinks of the Valley of the Ten Thousands smokes as a place that is never laid to rest. The wind continues to lift what is dead into the wind to soar upward.

Suddenly, a sound like a bomb exploding underneath them shakes the mountain. Stopping every creature in its tracks, including the men from the truck. Did you feel that? Smaller aftershocks begin to ripple from the epicenter. In the silence, Kinga hears the phone in her pocket ping; it’s the USGS alert explaining that the 4.7 magnitude earthquake came from Hualālai volcano and was likely caused by a “lateral slip along a sub-vertical fault” and not from magmatic activity. She crouches lower but a car door slams upon hearing the phone alert. She hears another pair of boots crunching over the grasses.

She is coiling tightly down. The white-hot sun bears down upon the fields. Kinga closes her eyes and ignores the sounds of the men approaching. Instead, she listens to the breeze rustling through the trees, the sounds of the ocean crashing against the shoreline, in all directions, in a circle around her. She hears an ‘io calling out in the clear bell of the sky. And she becomes buoyant, her coiled form unraveling upward until she is soaring above the coffee fields, up over the ancient sleeping volcanic mountains, her eyes glowing as radiant as a hawk’s. Her body pierces the mantle of heaven.

She is weightless now, soaring.