Berry Picking

It was late August and the evenings were still long. The air in these years is fresh and pure, mottled only with the playfulness of imagination, a flickering light of primary colours; that melody, that lovely  paradox of possibility and infinite security. I’m not sure how old I am, maybe nine, maybe ten; maybe even seven. I think I have plaits in my hair: blonde messy plaits with grass and leaves caught in them, as if I were some kind of woodland creature. I run and spin around a lot, my breath always caught in the dizzying air. Me and my limbs like climbing trees. I reach for branches with my arms; my thin fingers cling to them with earthy nails.

My cousins are here and we’re playing a game. There’s an old rowan tree at the back of our garden, which sucks all the light in the morning then bounces it back towards afternoon. Since it’s nearly September, the tree is rich in an abundance of vivid red berries, gleaming like the eyes of so many children. But to our eyes, they are precious and lovely as rubies. We are pirates, plundering treasure. We are climbing the tree and picking them – every last one – and tossing them in a bucket we’ve found in the shed. I remember the shed so clearly. The shed smells sweetly of sawdust, and that rainy, swampy scent of wet grass that comes from the lawnmower. Sometimes we sit in there, in the stuffy warmth, amongst the buckets and spades and gardening tools, and swap made-up stories.

No time exists in these summer evenings; only the bubbles of our laughter and the slow-changing light. The way our skin glows pale and moonlike as it grows darker. The way our voices float upwards, swallowed by a sea of stars.

We’ve cleared most of the tree now; its branches are bare of berries – left only with green. A green that blurs at the edges, that makes our spirits shimmer. The four of us stand at the foot of the tree, admiring our handiwork. The bucket is almost full.

‘But I can still see some up there!’ someone says. We look up and there are several handfuls still clutching the branches at the top of the tree. We wonder who will be brave enough. The boys step back kicking their feet. I am the oldest; by nature, it will be me.

I climb with ease, with my young sweeping limbs. No looking down. No fear, no notion of falling. My vision is confined to the enticement of those scarlet fruits above me.

And soon I am there, waving my arms triumphantly. I pluck the berries and toss their clusters down to the ground. They fall fast in bloodied, godlike rain. From up here I can see the whole town: what seems like a thousand rooftops rendered magical in the purplish twilight. An atmosphere that pulls at my brain. A moon emerging from a murky horizon, the church steeple thin and eerie against a backdrop of silken clouds. It is all wonder, a view that somehow contains me in its pocket of time. I shake as I finally break away and climb back down.

My cousins hug me as I become the day’s heroine. A whole tree, stripped clean. A child’s harvest of earliest autumn.

My mother calls us inside, but we do not listen. The air is still warm, the light now sparkling with summery darkness. One of us goes to retrieve a potato masher, and we stand round our bucket, our cauldron, like little witches. We take turns to smash the overflow of berries, passing the masher round, watching the red drip and slush and seep as we crush vehemently. Are we making a potion, a poison? Performing mystical rites? Brewing our own bittersweet jam, with its distinct tartness that pierces the tongue and waters the eyes?

We are concocting a tonic for time: for the long hours that melt and fade as we grow and change and lose the clarity of innocence, of childish sight. We relish something tangible and bright.

by Maria Sledmere

Prompts: childhood, potion

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