“I haven’t picked blueberries in a long time, Abigail,” she said, looking through the rear-view mirror to meet her daughter’s eyes. The road swam past, a few objects standing out for a split second—a tree, a mile marker—before fading into the sea of lines and shapes. She took a deep breath before continuing. “Not since I was your age. Back then we got paid to pick blueberries, not the other way around.” Her eyes drifted back and forth from road to child, making sure she was safe on both fronts.
“Why haven’t you picked in so long, Mama?” The girl’s deep blue eyes popped out of her young face, lips small, cheeks thin. She stared with such intensity at her mother that Stephanie had to draw in another deep breath. When Abigail blinked, the whole world vanished, and it only appeared again when she chose to open her eyes.
“You know why, Abby. Mommy hasn’t been well for…for a long time.” She sighed once more. That’s how it was with Stephanie—she had to squeeze the words out like peanut butter from a syringe. Words were mud, like pebbles on a shore—it’s only when you turned them over that you found out they were shells.
“Y’all can get yer buckets here!” shouted an old woman, arms thick and stretched in her aged floral dress. Bending over the table to peer at the newcomers, she said, a little too loudly, “Ohh, what a pretty girl!” Abby stepped back and clung to her mother’s rolled-up jeans that were loose in odd places. “My dau—my granddaughter’s not much bigger’n you, baby.”
“I’m eight,” Abigail countered, a little offended, gripping her mother tighter, who stroked her golden hair lightly. Stephanie took a deep breath and began murmuring a familiar song. The sun was hot on her back but she refused to give it attention.
“Boy, are you a cute one,” the woman said enthusiastically as she reached down for two buckets, eyes still focused on the young child. “I’ve got a couple o’ dresses that could just fit you, sweetie.” A touch of wistfulness, a tiny sigh, a rub of the arm, eyes too shiny, the way she bent too low for the buckets, too fast, and stayed bent, stuck, frozen, unsure if she could get up, babbling on about her daughter, her granddaughter, how hard it is getting old, bending, straightening, rubbing, give me the buckets, get out, get out, give me the buckets—
“Y’know, them dresses’re right back here in the house, I coul—”
“No thank you,” Stephanie said, snatched the buckets, clutched Abigail’s hand, swiftly walked off, gasped for air, the old woman reached out, tried to grab words.
Stephanie breathed deeply, the scent of blueberries thick in the air, bringing back fond memories of picking with her mother, grabbing thick handfuls of ripe berries and dumping them into the big bucket her mother carried. She closed her eyes, remembering the pale blue skirt her mother wore, the smile in her eyes when witnessing her daughter’s enthusiasm, the chuckle and bending her soft knees and whispering “I love you” like it was a secret that Daddy could never know. Reaching forward, Stephanie shook a branch softly and heard the delicate plopping of what she knew were the deepest blue berries landing into her bucket. “The dark blue ones are riper, Abigail,” she said, opening her eyes to look down at her beautiful daughter, who had no qualms about plucking entire branches bare of berries in every shade of azure, and even some emerald, as if she were collecting jewels to put in her tiny bucket.
The sun was still bright. But Stephanie could bear it.
Then everything fell out of focus, the sun searing into Stephanie’s back like tiny knives stabbing thickly. She battled with air, and it seemed to be winning, wheezing in and coughing out as quickly as possible. Her hand was jittering uncontrollably, unable to hold the branch above her, unable to hold anything. Her heart pounded like it wished to be heard. Voices began running through her head, whispering words that dare not be repeated. Some about her daughter. Where was she? Where was Abigail? Find her find her. She looked back to where her daughter had been and saw nothing but blueberries. Blueberries everywhere, consuming all, devouring the earth in their fury. Song lyrics came into mind, screaming at her, “All delighted people raise their hands” and she felt her hands rising in obedience, all delighted people raise their hands raise your hands raise them obey obey—ALL DELIGHTED PEOPLE RAISE THEIR HANDS. And suddenly she was there, raising her hands into the sky, crying from the effort, from the searing pain in her heart, in her hands, in her eyes, pain turning into tears, people looking, eyes narrowing, brows furrowing, and the voices laughed jovially, crying out in satisfaction that this once-sane woman was brought to such an end, such a cruel end.
She tried to fight. She thought of her daughter, blonde hair running down her cheeks, framing her face like a portrait. She thought of her daughter at the first day of school, saying, “I can do this all by myself, Mama!” She thought of her boss saying it’s okay to take personal days, it’s okay, but not to overuse them, as she took her daughter out of school for her birthday. She thought of how soon her daughter would start liking boys, how she would leave her and never come back one of these days, and she’d be all alone, living in her room, alone alone alone alone where was she—
She thought of her own mother, pulling her up into warm arms and squeezing her tight and tickling her until she giggled and giggled. But the giggles turned into laughter and the laughter turned angry and bitter and cruel and she saw herself next to her mother’s grave at the age of 12, wondering what would have inspired her to kill herself when she was in the prime of her life and was it her fault it was her fault and one day that would be her and Abigail would be Stephanie and all would be complete and orderly and it would continue throughout the generations until there were no more daughters—
She was sobbing now. She had fallen over, lying on the ground, on her hands. Her arms ached from all the delighted people. She had been heaving, stomach twisted in a giant knot, spitting up, but now she could breathe, and air flowed down her throat like a river. Tears swirled into the dirt, making her hands muddy. She sighed.
She got up. She sat on her knees, rocking back and forth, rubbing her hands on her thighs, over and over, rubbing in the dirt, breathing deeply, wiping her eyes. She looked at the bucket of blueberries. She put her hands in it, letting the blueberries run up to her elbows, and she picked them up and squeezed them and smeared them onto her face. It felt good, cool to the touch, to the pores. She reveled in the blueberries. She even ate some. And she saw them everywhere. She looked up to see people around her and in their eyes were blueberries. The blueberries smiled. She nodded to the questions they asked her. She was at peace with the blueberries. The sun stroked her cheek playfully. She giggled.
“Mama?” a voice called out from the crowd, and Stephanie stood up and ran to her child and picked her up and spun her. She cradled her and laughed and laughed and laughed. She held her daughter’s hand and bent down so their eyes were level and whispered, “Don’t you ever leave me again,” her smile shining. Abigail made a reply but Stephanie wasn’t listening. She went back, picked up her bucket, and walked toward the old woman, who was patiently waiting, arms crossed.
“Two buckets,” she said. She set them on the table. She was grinning. The woman poured the blueberries into two bags and weighed them. The woman gave her a total and she reached in her pocket and found some money and gave the money to the woman. Then she took the bags in one hand and Abigail’s hand in the other and walked to the car. She opened the door for Abigail to get in and then shut the door and opened her own and sat down. Looking through the rear-view mirror to meet her daughter’s eyes, she said, “Next time, we’ll pick blackberries.”