“So, tell me about these tomatoes,” Henley said for the first time in his life.
The Hmong woman behind the table blinked at him, smiled, and turned to call her daughter over. “These are zebra tomatoes,” the slender young woman said. “These are green zebra and these are black.” She pointed to a pile of bulky, dark red tomatoes striated in green. She grinned at him. “Don’t ask me why they’re called black.”
He got the sense she’d been through this dozens of times before, new as it was to him. He asked what they tasted like. The pretty, young woman tilted her head, glossy black hair spilling over one exposed shoulder. “They’re tart, they taste like citrus. They’d go on a salad with, like, feta cheese and pickled mushrooms, maybe. Would you like to try one?”
Suddenly self-conscious, Henley stammered, “I don’t want you to open one up just for me. I don’t know if I’m going to buy anything.” She laughed and assured him it was fine, pulled out a thin plastic cutting board and paring knife from seemingly nowhere, and quartered a tomato, dicing a wedge as the older Hmong woman argued with her. “I really don’t want to cause any trouble,” he said, accepting a couple chunks off the flat of the knife. He popped them in his mouth.
Citrus, right up front. They also tasted like sunshine. He pictured spreading fields of rows of tomato plants, basking in the sun, turning light into food, sucking nutrients out of the soil, plumping up and reddening until the fruit was plucked and carted off and chopped up in front of him. Henley had never experienced such a close, personal relationship with a vegetable before.
The young woman’s eyes closed as she grinned at him. “They’re good, huh?” In response, he bought three for two dollars, briefly wondering how that rated against grocery store prices. At least he was supporting local farmers. Were they local? He reared back to read the sign on the table: it said they were local and used no chemicals in growing their produce. That had to be a good cause. He was doing good work here, today. He thanked the young woman and waved and bowed at her mother or grandmother, turned to walk away, and tripped over the large, leathern toe of workboots, smacking his head against a bare shin before collapsing to the ground.
“Omigod, I’m so sorry!” rang out a voice from above. “Are you okay?”
He looked up into the brilliant azure sky to see a pair of huge hands reaching for him, pausing, retracting, reaching again, pulling back again. He’d only struggled to steady himself against the tomato table, knocking over nothing, spilling nothing, just needing a second to regain his balance as huge, thick, round fingertips thrust at him and retreated a few times. “It’s fine, I’m fine,” he said, then cleared his throat and repeated himself louder. The enormous hands seemed to calm down.
“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” said a mellifluous voice with just a trace of exotic accent. “I forget how quiet we can be when we’re not trying.”
“I was distracted, it’s fine. Are you okay?” Immediately he realized what a stupid question that was. The huge boots came up to his knees, the voluptuous rolls of woolen socks as high as his thighs. He gawked at the long and shiny shins with bulging calves as the giant woman crouched in front of him, barely fitting between the parallel rows of produce tables. He averted his gaze from where her crotch spread between her flattened thighs and tilted his head far, far back to try to pick out the features silhouetted against the brilliant sun. All he could really make out was a wreath of flaxen hair.
The giantess giggled. “You’re sweet to ask, but that’s kind of ridiculous. Isn’t it?” Henley gasped in nervous laughter and agreed. “I heard you talking to Eve about tomatoes. Do you grow them?”
“I don’t know anything about vegetables,” Henley blurted. “Sorry.”
The canopy of legs straightened as the giantess slowly stood. Henley found himself eye-level with her knees; they flexed and shifted under lightly wrinkled, working-woman’s skin. Her skin was lightly tanned with intermittent bristles of short, translucent hairs, but otherwise flawless. Her calves curved slightly, evidence of working the fields and repeatedly lifting things.
As if reading his thoughts, the giantess said, “I’m in charge of the tomatoes. Everyone else is too clumsy. I seem to have just the right touch for shaking them off the vines into the drums we use for transport.” She shoved her hands into her pockets, right next to where her muscular thighs disappeared into the legs of her immensely scaled cargo shorts. Henley didn’t want to be caught staring up into the leg-holes of someone who was talking to him, even if he couldn’t really see her because of the sunshine, and even if the leg-holes were enormous.
He could only stare up at the monolithic young woman in front of him. “So… tomatoes need, like, a gentle touch?” he asked pathetically, feeling pathetic.
“Yeah, actually! You shouldn’t even touch them while they’re growing. And they’re prone to so many diseases and blights.” The enormous woman sank to one knee on the concrete plaza, resting her hands upon her upraised knee. “That’s when we need someone your size.”
He flinched. “For what?”
“You have to examine the plants and tell us what it looks like when they’re diseased, so I know what kind of pesticide to mix up. Like, do the tomatoes have little white spots on the bottoms, or are the leaves getting chewed up by little white bugs. I can’t really see any of that.”
Henley was taken aback. “This is a really complex system, then? I can appreciate that.”
The giantess smiled upon him, and that felt like sunshine. “My name’s Éibhlín. What’s yours?” He introduced himself. “I heard your friend call you Henny. Do you like that?”
He was stunned she could pick out that conversation from all the noise and buzz going on in the plaza. “No, actually, I don’t. He likes to irritate me.”
She frowned with her entire face, from her concerned and creased brow to the deep gouges that carved around the corners of her mouth. “We have a word for people who do something, and you tell them it offends you, and they keep doing it especially because it bothers you.”
Henley’s mind raced with the possibilities the German language might hold for such an obscure term. Later he’d wonder why people always turned to German for those oblique terms. “Oh? What’s that?”
Surprised, Henley burst into laughter. Éibhlín laughed with him, until a pair of dark pants edged up behind her. “Don’t you have some work to do?” said the surly, brunet giant.
Éibhlín hardly turned her head to her shoulder. “Mind your own business, Duibhne. I laid out the tomatoes and that’s all I have to do today.”
“You don’t need to be mingling with the pests.”
Éibhlín’s lips tightened. She bunched up her fist, but drove her elbow backward into the giant’s kneecap. He swore and staggered back, shuffling immediately away from the awning and table of the campus librarians. “The fuck was that for?” he thundered far over Henley’s head.
“Go collect the cow shit like you were brought here to do, aiteann.” Only then did she crane her head around to glare up at the gigantic young man. He murmured something at her that sounded like something massive pushing its way through layers of earth, to Henley’s ears. She murmured something back that sounded like the earth being torn open, a deep wound in the land that widened. The gigantic dark-haired boy merely turned and stomped off, but Henley was shaken, as though he’d endured two near-death experiences.
The massive blonde head swiveled back toward him like a planet turning in the sky. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to act like that in front of you. We’re supposed to keep that away from you guys.” She stared at him in silence for a while.
“It’s okay, I guess.” Henley felt exposed in her gaze, standing before her mere work boot. “I don’t get out much. I mean, I don’t really know how the world works.”
She assured him he was fine, sighed, and heaved her immense bulk up to a standing position once more. “I suppose I should get back to work, anyway. It was nice meeting you, Henley.” She paused. “I wonder if I could email you sometime.”
He stood there, near the center of the plaza, between the boots the size of VW Beetles. He stood there between tree-like shins that shifted shyly, bearing incredible weight upon this foot or that. How vulnerable she seemed, despite having the destructive power of a National Guard unit. He stared at her lower legs, watching how they twitched slightly, her muscles shifting and sliding behind layers of dense skin, and he grew slightly dizzy. “Yeah, please,” he said, reciting his full name and rattling off his email address. “Do you need to see my ID card?”
She laughed like a summer rain upon his head. “No, that’s fine, I’ve got it. I’ll write you tonight, if that’s okay. I’d like to see you again,” she added quietly, fixing her stare upon him.
He stared back, staring up at her, all the way up her height to that gorgeous head upon her shoulders. “I would like that,” he said, surprising himself with the understatement.
Dimples formed around Éibhlín’s grin, in the second before she walked down the plaza, waggling her fingers at him before she turned back to her gigantic classmates and conferred on the afternoon’s duties. Henley could only stare at her in amazement, his mind racing with the things he should have said, wondering what time alone with this minor goddess would look like, when he received a hard punch to his shoulder.
“Holy shit, dude!” A copper-headed face leered into his. “I thought you were scared of them! You’re gonna bury yourself in pussy!”
That was enough for Henley. He wrapped the front of Cobie’s shirt in his fist to support him, before snaking his leg behind Cobie’s to kick his knees out from under him. He lowered him roughly to the brickwork of the plaza, stepping around to gently kneel on his friend’s throat.
“You take that back, now,” he said.
“The fuck, dude! Get the fuck off me!” Cobie tried punching at his thighs, unable to reach his chest. In response, Henley applied a little more pressure to his friend’s throat, until he croaked a reluctant apology. Henley released him and stood up, instantly posed as though nothing unusual had happened. Cobie dusted himself off. “You ever try anything like that again, Henny…”
Henley promptly stepped up to Cobie, pressing his face into his friend’s until Cobie had to duck and dodge. “Then what? What happens then, Cobie?”
Cobie stepped back. “Nothing, forget it. You got everything you need? Tomatoes? You wanna pick up some string beans or fennel or anything?”
Henley said he was good and started walking back to his dorm, to drop off the produce and pick up his books for afternoon classes. Cobie glanced back at the giants milling around the farm equipment, then trotted after his friend.