MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Picking Berries

Noelle Sterne

Driving up the road Friday at dusk to our weekend cottage, Stephen and I had just seen the bushes. They were so weighted with fruit they brushed the sides of the car. Our neighbor Trevor came trudging toward us on the lane. He waved and we stopped. Stephen rolled down his window.

"Top o´ your hill is full," Trevor said. “Yep, wineberries all over . . . " his voice trailed off. "Real good pickin´ this weekend.” He stared at us from under his old straw hat.

"Right, Trev," Stephen replied, turning into our driveway.

No thanks, I thought. Every Friday night, we fled the city´s overloaded schedules, incessant phones, and meals gulped in tandem. All the time-saving technology seemed only to add to the daily imperatives. By Thursday, I craved our cottage—an oasis of simplicity, minimal duties, and open-ended time.

Most weekends, though, we’d just about achieved some sense of relaxation when it was time to come back. I’d never seemed to master the secret the country is supposed to give you. Even when I sat outside with a book I’d long wanted to read, I gazed at the hills and watched the to-dos roll around in my head, multiplying mercilessly. Always a frenzy, and Sunday night came too soon.

Trevor and Elsie, living in the country all their lives, probably couldn´t figure us out. We didn´t plant, pick, harvest, can, cut wood, or keep chickens. Stephen mowed our intentionally small patch of grass, and I occasionally brought in sprigs of the oatgrass.

* * * * * *
Saturday we slept late and had a leisurely breakfast of my French toast and brewed coffee, so much better than the usual cardboard takeouts. I washed the dishes by hand, savoring the water´s sweet soapiness. Stephen sorted the modest pile of magazines by the fireplace.

Soon I felt the unmistakable click inside that signaled the city´s pace draining somewhat. We spent the day at small, satisfying tasks, not having to talk, in that special comfort of a long relationship.

Toward evening, Stephen took the garbage to the end of the lane. When he returned, he said, "Just met Trevor at the trash cans. Elsie´s made twelve jars of preserves from those wineberries. This weekend´s about the last of them."

I laughed. "A jar of Elsie´s jam will do me just fine."

But that night, every time I woke in the unaccustomed quiet, I saw the wineberry bushes, swaying and arching out over the road, laden with fruit.

* * * * * *
Sunday arrived clear and breezy. I opened the windows wide, and the air smelled fresh as mountains with a hint of wineberries. At the edge of the woods, hanging between two trees. the faded hammock beckoned.

But something impelled me otherwise. Maybe claustrophobia from the cramped apartment, maybe a desire to explore beyond our boundary and routines. Maybe Trevor’s report.

I put on my long-sleeved plaid shirt and tucked it into an old pair of overalls. Then I pulled on thick socks and my worn oxfords, grabbed my wide-brimmed hat—garage-sale find—from its peg on the wall, and took the plastic pail for leaks we kept under the sink.

As I opened the door, Stephen looked up from a magazine and smiled.

* * * * * *
Behind the cottage, I tramped through the woods and out where I’d never ventured before, into the neighboring field. The grasses grew almost waist high, and with every step, the brush thickened and became more tangled. I was forced to slow down.

By inches, I parted the grasses and came to a stonerow. Footing was tricky, and it took concentration to step over the uneven rocks. I made my way slowly up the hill. Stopping to catch my breath and steady myself, I peered through the tangles.

And saw them.

Bush after bush of delicately saw-toothed, triangular leaves on tiny-thorned vines. They stood utterly still, heavy with brilliant dark red fruit. I felt like a pilgrim.

I stepped nearer. From a filament-like stem, a cluster of the berries hung before me. They were perfectly segmented, of richest crimson.

I’d never picked berries. Only on rare, self-indulgent occasions in the supermarket had I ever stopped in front of them. From easy shelves, I´d plucked a neat plastic pint of raspberries, probably force-grown, cellophaned tight by green-aproned workers.

Now, though, as if guided, I adjusted the pail handle on my left forearm and cupped my left hand under a cluster. With the tips of my right thumb and first two fingers, I gently loosened a berry. It yielded into my palm—delicate, soft, with a hint of roughness.

On the stem, a soft pointed cone of bright orange remained. When I turned the berry over, the space in the center exactly fit the cone. Hardly a revelation by city-logic standards, but I couldn´t stop staring from the space left to the cone and back again. Nature’s exquisitely perfect fit.

I kept picking, but the berries dictated the pace and touch. Grabbing too greedily, I risked a bad scratch. Pulling too hard, I crushed a berry between my fingers. If I rushed and threw the berry toward the pail, it ended up in the brush underfoot.

If only I could incorporate their rhythm and wisdom into my city days—rushing from one to-do to the next, each more imperative than the one before. And each, of course, once having been checked off, spawning three more.

The berries didn’t care, had no checklists, no goals of never-sated superficial accomplishment. How could I emulate them, at least a little?

I practiced, separating the branches with a fine patience. Several times, in weekday haste, I nearly lost my hat to irate vines. Without hurry, I had to curve between the vines, lift the clusters, coax each berry, and wait to receive.

Finishing one bush, I turned to see where next to gather—and gasped out loud.

I’d seen the many bushes from afar, but now, as I stood in their midst, clusters surrounded me from ankle to shoulder . . . nine, eleven, fifteen berries on a stem.

I didn’t have to move or turn. Time and to-dos faded. All was the seamless present of sky, sun, and shining boughs, giving freely.

The pail felt heavy on my arm. Almost full.

I sighed. Picking the last few, I extricated myself reluctantly from the bushes´ embrace. I inched and turned several times to keep them in sight. A pleasant waxy stickiness clung to my hands, and I relished it on the long hike back through the field.

* * * * * *
Stephen was stretched out on the sofa, reading. He looked up from his book. "How´d you make out?" he asked.

I held up the pail.

“Wow,” he said.

As if performing a rite, I took down the colander from its hook over the stove, gently shook the berries from the pail into it, and placed it in the sink. I turned on the cold water and picked up the sprayer.

And stopped, almost laughing. What would rinse off? Pesticide? City grime? Tobaccoed sweat from truckers´ hands?

I replaced the sprayer and turned off the water.

Stephen brought two bowls and spoons to the table. In the center, like an offering, I set the colander.

Always attuned to me, he took my hand and said, "Thank you, Lord, for Your bounty."

"Amen," I whispered.

The berries burst forth in my mouth—a glory of soft fruit, crunchy seeds, tart-sweet fullness, fragrant mossy woods, summer rains, and cleansing winds.

Stephen made a low appreciative sound and took a second helping. He pushed the colander toward me.

I shook my head. A wave of sadness rose as I thought of the hill and the bushes swaying undisturbed. One day, maybe two, was all they had left.

My sadness turned to gratitude as I replayed the rhythms of the berries and what they showed me. And I thanked them for the gift of themselves.