Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.~Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry-Picking”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. ~Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, but something else there is that loves a fence, that sees in it a kindred form and tendrils wiry brambles out to clasp and claim it, pull it close, thicken it with a razor-wire of thorns.
Pluck the berries, small and dark, summer’s blood staining skin as they plonk into the metal bowl, a slow-swelling mound. Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost chatter back and forth in your head, the Irish poet and the Californian transplanted to New England soil. Reach across the fence, fingers careful, precise, to avoid the stinging thorns that pierce and tear. Pick wild berries once, and the memory of pain is forever limned onto your skin, the whorls of your fingertips, the tender thinness of your inner wrist.
Extract fingers tender-clutching soft berries, and realize that you are stealing. These are the neighbors’ berries, on their side of the fence, its wires sagging beneath the weight of brambles. Not that these neighbors will notice, or care. Do they even know there are berries here? The fence was strung to keep cattle where they were wanted, but like the farmer who drove the posts deep, stretched the wire, its bones are now fading into earth. It is a fence in little more than name, certainly not in function. No self-respecting cow would respect it, and the deer never have. It is decaying into something else–a property line, an idea.
But whose property is this? Before the neighbors, the farmer. Before the farmer, a land-grant from a king now dust. Before that, the Monacan nation, who left behind a scattering of their tools on the hillside where the road cuts deep, before they were driven east, fenced elsewhere. Realize that your small theft is merely the most recent in a long line of depredations, and will not be the last. Realize that these berries will need sweetening.
Work your way up the hill, along the fence line. Dart fingers in, coax loose-dropping berries into your cupped palm. Try to resist filling your hand before emptying it, knowing that if you don’t you will fumble the best of them, the lushest and most plump. Fail in the face of temptation. Lose the best ones.
Farther up the hill, into the woods, past the spot where you saw the fox, where the black vultures nested, where you once jumped over a blacksnake stretched lazily across the path. Past the place where you startled a buzzard from its meal, the place where a doe tangled her leg in the sagging wire and you twisted it free, the place where a buck snared himself and there was no one to loose him. Past white bones scattered over green moss. Here the earth is rich with stories and you must remind yourself that it’s berries you’re after.
Out of the woods, down the hill to the house where it nestles snug against the earth. Kick off boots, haul your loot inside, rinse the berries in the sink swirling with purple water. Pull out the well-thumbed cookbook because no matter how many times you make it, you can never quite remember the recipe, the proportions. Two quarters? Two thirds? This failure to remember feels like a theft–the recipe isn’t yours, really, if it isn’t buried in muscle memory. If you have to look it up, it’s something you borrow. Something your great-grandmother gave your grandfather who gave it to your mother who gifted it to you, but you can never quite remember. So you page through the book until you find it.
You sift the flour twice, as you’ve been taught–two cups, twice, a solemn spell cut with a teaspoon of sparkling salt. Where did the wheat grow, the salt come from? It’s strange, when you think about it, to cloak your wild backyard berries in these refined foreign things. Then butter, a small act of desecration since you have been told that it is Crisco, must be Crisco, but you do not have any and are really not sure where that gelatinous whiteness comes from and butter, at least, comes from a cow and that cow lives a few miles down the road, presumably secure behind a functioning fence. Perhaps, in choosing butter, you have made a hole in the spell, a weak point, and the magic will trickle out.
You cut in the butter–two-thirds of a cup, and why you can’t ever remember that you will never know–and then sprinkle in ice water, a tablespoon at a time, tossing the flour with a fork. You have been admonished not to overdo it, taught that this is the secret to a good pie crust–don’t overhandle it. Don’t add too much water. Don’t mix it too much or roll it too thin or use too much flour to dust it or not enough. The dough that comes together in your great-grandmother’s white Pyrex bowl is a pale glue, sickly beside the wine-dark berries. You roll it out, fearful lest the crust break and you should have to overhandle it to get it back together.
Into your mother’s Corningware pie plate you slip the bottom crust, piercing it to let the steam escape, and then pour in the berries. You sprinkle them with sugar, cornstarch, and flecks of butter. The top crust lumps over them, and you tuck in the edges, crimp them between your fingers, and cut a vent in the top–the almost-embracing wheat sheaves that your mother taught you to make because your grandfather and great grandmother taught her to make them and there are ways these things are done.
You think of all the people who lived here before you, and sprinkle extra sugar over the top crust before sliding the pie into the oven. It bakes at 400 and then at 350, and you must be mindful of this change, rob the heat at the right moment so that the crust doesn’t brown and toughen.
When the pie is done, it must cool, or the juices spill out and you are left with pie soup. So you wait, and wait. And then, finally, you cut a slice of pie, still warm, and the deep-dark pulse of history gushes sweet and sour, the fragile crust incapable of containing it.
Afterwards, you clean up–dishes scrubbed, counters wiped, purple splatters scoured from the counter with baking soda. But the evidence lingers in the stains on your hands, stains that are brilliant today but will fade tomorrow to indigo, and then slough away until summer’s berries are only a memory.