After a late summer morning walk, during which I paused every few minutes for an impromptu blackberry-feasting break, I came home and sat down to write:
The invasive crush of their yield—roadside, ditch, ravine, and empty field. They grow along the chain-link of vacant lots, along ditches, by water, highway, dumpsters in back alleys. They grow tenaciously, relentlessly, without regard for order.
So Eden sank to grief, wrote Robert Frost, bleak with poetry and the truth. With my juice-bruised hand, I salute that truth. What grows so often grows in thickets stung with briar, thorn and thistle. In my mouth, the flowery sugar-dark.
The blackberry, emblem of multiplicity, the brain as composite of seeds. Imagination in juicy flush. The birds eat them, release them as seeds, multiply the thorny world.
The focus of the task enamours me. How I can be standing in gumboots in the ditch, bucket at my feet, traffic at my back, and enacting a task. Doing something, and yet my mind is free, untethered. Away it goes. This is the pleasure of the chore. The hands busy, the mind free. Little messages flying and firing, making what they will of the world around me.
Doing something, and yet my mind is free, untethered. Away it goes.
Indeed, away it went. And what it came back with, as usual, was memory, and as usual, memory came back to spill a little light on the here and now.
The biggest berries grow along the fence line of the farm down the road, their juice fuelled by the cows that graze the fields. Each manure pie and spell of rain mingle down to roots that drink it up, make every pinkish flower burst into a tiny clutch of seeds that sweeten with the bees and hum of sun. And I become the picker, bucket tucked to my left hip and my right hand reaching through the barbed wire and brambles, reaching for the higher cluster, glossy, black, and fat.
As in a retro sci-fi film, the plants strike back, tenacious, each thistly cane hooking bare skin, grabbing at a snatch of hair. I come away in blood—my ankle raked, my scalp snagged, my forearm trickling, my hands stained red, my fingers looking bruised along the cuticle, beneath the nails. But never mind the wounds—the task enamours me the way any chore of repetition can, especially when the pain tastes this good. For every handful dropped into the bucket, I eat one berry. Crush it with my tongue against my palate and let the flavour bloom. A dark flower pools in my mouth.
The wild blackberry.
If of the symphony, the viola.
If magic, the woman sawn in two.
If water, the undercurrent.
If weather, late summer storm.
If a story from the Bible, the demoniac among the tombs,
snarling, finally set free.
If of the body, the bruised eye.
If love, the sort that won’t let go, that hurts,
that makes you cry uncle, makes you laugh,
then kiss and kiss and kiss.
The first time I tasted blackberries, I was 18, sitting on a concrete bench, a stranger to the city where I now live. That day, I’d moved into an apartment with my best high school friend. We schlepped our cardboard boxes full of hand-me-down kitchen utensils and bath towels and bed linens from the back of her dad’s pick-up, setting up our lives as university students and citizens of the new world, and then, her parents hugged us, honking as they drove away, leaving us bewildered with our lives. We stood inside our barely-furnished living room with its futon couch, particle board desks, and Formica dining table. I sat down in my mother’s old Naugahyde rocking chair, its black pleather split along the seat and covered with a patchwork blanket. While Sindee stood in the middle of the kitchen, opening and closing the cupboard doors, I rocked and rocked. Neither of us knew quite what to do with the sudden freedom.
So we headed outdoors and toward the downtown core, feeling like visitors as we walked the unfamiliar streets. On the way, we stopped at a corner store arrayed with a splendour of fresh fruits and vegetables on a wooden stand along its front windows. The sight seemed strangely exciting, almost exotic. Late August and all the fruit was bright and ripe. Nectarines glowed like little fireballs. Peaches, fuzzy sunsets, lay cupped in purple cardboard trays. Grapes in clusters. Apricots and plums and pears and apples, vivid as an advert for a banquet in Paradise.
We bought a green plastic basket of blackberries to share, and walked toward the water, passing boutiques, streetlamps, panhandlers, bus stops—all things we didn’t have in our northern interior small town. When we descended the stairs to the harbour walkway and I smelled the ocean’s kelpy brine, saw the row of docked sailboats and yachts, heard the buskers with their guitars and harmonicas and fiddles brightening the air with music, I felt as if my heart were cartoonly swelling in my chest, expanding to hold this sensory cargo.
Sindee and I sat in the sun, the basket between us on the concrete bench, and for the first time—for the only first time in my whole life, I tasted a blackberry. It was like no berry I’d eaten before, the flavour floral and dusky, summer and autumn. As with every first, the whole world teetered for a moment on that threshold of discovery. I had no clue, no thought at all, that by next fall, I’d be pregnant, planning a quick-fire wedding to a boy whom, at the taste of my first blackberry, I hadn’t yet met, didn’t even know was alive and breathing in that same island city.
Midnight and flowers, wine and ink—the new flavour that seemed unimaginable and rare grew wild on the island, relentlessly and without regard for order. Blackberries along ditches and chainlink-fenced lanes and alleys. Blackberries by the whoosh of the rush-hour highway. Even blackberries behind the Bay Street Manor apartment block, beside the dumpster at the far end of the parking lot. But with that first blackberry, I knew nothing, and everything was new.
And would be made new. The blackberry, with its myriad seeds, its juicy drupelet flush of pleasure, eaten by birds and scattered back to the dirt to multiply, grows on. Though the world is stung with briars, thorns and thistles, it still tastes good. The bucket at my hip is heaped with berries. Across the road, at another rise of brambles, my husband—that boy, now silver-haired—feasts and fills his own bowl, and farther down, where the run-off pools in the ditch and feeds the roots, our daughter, on break and home for a visit from her student life in a city away from home, fills her bucket too.