It Builds Something Unseen
The berries tasted best after midnight. Something about how their sun-warmed skins cooled under the dew and darkness made them juicier, sweeter. Of course if you picked them and tried to take them home and put them on your cereal or pancakes for breakfast, they were even worse than if you’d picked them at noon. Mushy, worked over. Worn-out with waiting.
Adena was well aware the only thing to do was stand under the moonlight and burst their dimpled skins with her teeth while still knee-deep in briars.
She waited until she heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” waft out of her father’s crackly black and white, and in the warm shush of static that followed she eased through the backdoor, careful not to let the screen slam on its hinges. The care she took was not necessary since her father was passed out drunk with an army of dead soldiers littered around his musty easy chair. But care taken in doing anything is not wasted, even if unnecessary. It builds something unseen.
The path from the rotting floorboards of the back porch to the woods was worn smooth with use, human and animal alike. Her mom, her dad. The paperboy taking a short cut. Deer eating the hostas, raccoons snooping through trash. Bears. Coyotes. She’d heard all the stories, the ancient fairy tales about little girls alone in the woods. All bullshit lies. She knew all these characters, could smell their benevolence on the night air as potent as piss in rutting season.
The hem of her night shirt was tattered, damp and dirty. Her folks never asked how it got to be in such a state just from sleeping in her bunk. Either they didn’t care, or they already knew. Most likely both. It snagged a jagger bush as she pattered down the hill toward the creek and she delighted in the soft tearing sound it added to the night music of the woods. The owl didn’t care. Neither did the opossum. They went about their business.
As she approached, the creek sounded like the laughter of children. She imagined it was the voices of the kids who didn’t make it out. Didn’t drip water from their hair and clothes into the muddy banks; didn’t stoop, drenched, to dump the pebbles out of their shoes. Didn’t get another turn on the rope swing. Donny Steiner, who crashed his dirt bike into the creek back in the ’70s. Emma Jones, the 3-year-old neighbor girl who slipped on the slick slope, but was afraid to cry out lest she get a spanking. Barstow, her first cousin, who plunged headfirst off Trixie’s Rock last spring and broke his neck on the riverbed, body swept away in the flood waters. And many more whose stories she’d never heard. They were all still there. Giggling in the dark.
She listened and chimed in from time to time as she followed the path upstream to where a little trickle of runoff married the creek. On the far side of the brook a small rise of rich flood plain soil cradled the roots of the best black raspberry bushes in the county. The century oak that fell last summer in the heavy July weather had been reborn as a bridge across the stream. It left an opening in the canopy just big enough to decant the perfect dose of afternoon sunlight for the bushes.
Adena felt eyes on her as she stepped onto the fallen log, the soles of her bare feet as thick and silent as leather moccasins. Heel, toe, heel, toe, for the invisible audience. She didn’t even need to spread her arms wide like a tightrope walker to keep her balance. The natives from five hundred years past were pleased with her display. They watched, crouched in the underbrush, chewing teaberry leaves and sassafras root. She could feel the warmth of their bare skin, girded only in loin cloths this time of year, mingle with the cool sighs of the leaves breathing fresh oxygen into the night.
Adena reached into the bramble, fingers groping for ripe fruit. The leaves of the raspberry bushes hid bristly hairs on their undersides. They tickled. They pinched sometimes, too. Scratches on her calves and thighs smoldered. A thorn punctured her pointer finger as she grasped the perfect berry.
The scent of the berry crept to her through the darkness as she freed it from the stem. The dampness in her hand: dew, juice, sweat. She pressed it between her lips and shuddered at the crush. The tang burst on her tongue, tart and sweet, tinged with the copper of her own blood.
She knew it was supposed to be ominous: the little girl alone in the woods, the attention of predators, the dead children in the creek, the long-annihilated native residents, the pain of finding something sweet. But she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t spook. It only felt like love, perfect and holy.