Sarah Fawn Montgomery
The sweetness is a secret, hidden low on branches closest to the ground. If I squat, angle my head beneath bramble, I find the blackberries no one else noticed. They are full to bursting, juice straining against the skins. They shine purple and glossy in the California heat.
On Sundays Mommy and Daddy and I drive to the berry patch and wander the rows while the sun moves from its position on the horizon to just overhead. Heat rises hazy from the bushes like a mirage.
The prickles hurt and my hands stain from crushing berries in failed attempts to pluck them from the vine. When I look down, I see failure on my fingers.
We do not have money for fruit. Sometimes I get apples, the mealy red ones from the bargain bin at the grocery store, and bananas, the kind that are soft and sticky. Mommy says that is because they have been kissed by the sun, but I don’t want to be loved by someone that leaves a bruise.
On special occasions I get an orange, but it is so rare that the pith worries me and I spend so long trying to pull the fibers from the fruit that the flesh pulps in my hands, leaves them sticky and wanting.
We keep the good fruit—Daddy’s fruit—in a drawer in the fridge. I see the shining skins when I clean out the fridge on Saturdays because it—like most of our appliances—is broken. It is my job to use old rags to soak up the leaking cold, wring it into a bucket while my hands prune. I pretend I am Cinderella and I sing to the mice our old cat catches in the dusty fields around our house, leaves dead on the front porch.
I am not allowed in the drawer, but sometimes I open it to look at the jewels. Soft orange apricots and bright plums, a bag of red cherries. Some of the fruit is waxed and glossy, like the nectarines, but others, like the peaches, are soft and furred. These are the ones I like best, the texture like my new baby sister, like something to love.
When Daddy is happy and his construction team builds a fence despite hundred-degree heat and no one accidently puts a nail through their thumb, watches it burst like a blueberry, he lets me take bites from his fruit. “Small bites,” he says. “Remember.”
Apricots are my favorite, tart and tangy on my teeth, and I love to pull the small stone from inside. I ask Daddy if I can keep these pits, evidence of our bounty I plant later in our small backyard, digging in the rocks. Mommy laughs, says nothing will grow from that, but I know she means nothing will grow here.
We gather at the berry patch early because of the heat, but I think it is to beat the crowds, because the parking lot fills quickly with minivans full of people who have driven out to our nothing town for the day. Mothers take pictures of their children experiencing country life and fathers wander away to take phone calls.
I worry when I see so many people, worry I will not be able to fill my pail, worry that I will only get a few bursts of sweetness on my tongue. I worry that I am not as clever or quick as the little girls in their matching overalls and straw hats. I wear hand-me-down clothes and sometimes my mother’s and it doesn’t matter if I wipe my hands on them, get them berry-stained because they are already spotted and show a few holes too.
I rush down the rows, feverish in my attempt to find, feed myself on the best. If I can find enough berries, crush them beneath my strong teeth maybe my smile will stop growing crooked and the girls at school won’t call me vampire.
It is hard, this work, stooping and plucking, and my parents don’t have the money to rent the gloves, so sometimes I prick my fingers and they bleed a bit, mix with the red berries, a sweet and sour sting I suck onto the tip of my tongue.
“Slow down,” Mommy says from behind me, where she holds my new sister to her breast. But I know that we have to buy whatever we pick so I go fast, fast. Soon my metal pail is heavy and I must drag it on the ground, leaving a trail behind me.
When we pay, my parents wince, but I am so proud. “Good job,” they say anyway.
“We can have berries twice,” Daddy cries. “Imagine that!”
I didn’t even need to worry—the other children and mothers and fathers give up quickly. They claim a few berries, the ones from the top branches, already pecked by the birds, dried out from the sun. They smile for the photos, pucker their mouths after. They leave their pails and buy a few pre-plucked pints from the roadside stand.
Daddy does not cook often, but when he does it is special. He says so all the time. Daddy’s special eggs have lots of seasoning. Daddy’s special breakfast rice is full of butter. Daddy is very good, he says, at making something from nothing.
When Mommy says there is nothing in the cupboards and I see through the empty shelves to the wall, Daddy says “Let me whip something up,” and makes a big show of whistling and singing and pulling the vegetables the sun kissed out of the broken fridge, shaking off the leaking water. He pulls the few cans and spices out and tells me that they don’t look like they go together but that’s why his recipes are so good.
Daddy serves the food up hot, hot so that I can see the steam rise from the plate like a mirage, and he puts it in front of me with a flourish, looks so eager asking, “Isn’t that good?” that it always tastes yummy.
There never seems to be enough, but Daddy says what makes his recipes special is that you always want more.
Sometimes I get greedy, spot a blackberry not quite ripe, the transformation still underway. I am Mommy’s best helper, she says—reminds me when my new sister arrives, then the twins a few years later, then two brothers, another sister, so many siblings we can’t pick berries anymore—but sometimes I can’t help but break the rules, claim something for myself.
I pluck the mostly-red berry from the bush and plop it into my mouth where it bursts like the stars I sometimes see from my window late at night, when my tummy rumbles even though I ate dinner. When Daddy and Mommy whisper about bills across from one another at the empty dining room table.
Shooting stars look like butter smeared across the sky.
But the berries are tart to the point of hurt, make the glands in the back of my throat pulse pain. You cannot make something sweet if it is not.
Daddy’s special recipe for berries is so sweet it makes our teeth ache.
He learned it from his Mama, he tells me in the kitchen. Raised in Oklahoma during the Depression, she made something from nothing all the time and it was delicious he says. He could eat biscuits made of flour and water every day, and he does sometimes still, tells my Mommy hers are almost as good.
His mother is dead now, of a cantaloupe-sized tumor in her stomach just after I was born, but I see why he liked her cooking so much because when we visit her many sisters and their many kids and theirs, they make biscuits and gravy and pies and tell us “Eat, eat” and wait in the kitchen for the men and children to eat first. They like feeding people so much that sometimes there is nothing left for them at all and they wipe the gravy up with their fingers from the plates before they wash the dishes.
We soak the berries to get off the bugs and leaves and dried bits of pollen, and they float to the top of the water like the dead. Mommy says to wait until the berries are clean, but we can’t help it and we stick our hands in when she isn’t looking and sneak a berry. Daddy always finds the best ones, dark and heavy, and plops them in my mouth.
“Mmm mmm,” he says. “Aren’t we lucky?”
When the berries are clean, we pat them dry and Daddy finds a special can in our empty cupboards. He hides cans like these for when we need something special.
He puts a handful of berries at the bottom of a bowl, sprinkles them from the sugar bowl he and Mommy use to sweeten their coffee. I’m not allowed near it the unless I’m cleaning up the ants that trail in the house summers when it’s too hot. I crush their trails on the counter with my fingertips, but Mommy and Daddy say don’t throw out the sugar.
The sugar glistens on the berries like the snow I’ve only seen on tv and in my schoolmate’s vacation photos and then comes the best part—Daddy pours sweetened condensed milk over the top, thick like caramel. He stirs it together and we use a big spoon to lap it up.
Daddy and I eat all we could want and our bellies hurt from too much for once, and my teeth vibrate and his teeth hurt, long gone black with rot, growing grooves between them the like wooden planks he fences for a living.
Sometimes we pull the berries from the cream with our fingers, lick the sugar off and say, “delicious” like we see in the movies.
When I wash the dishes later, I pretend I’m my grandmother, my aunts. I use my finger to wipe the last of the sugar from the bowl.
When my parents visit me as an adult, I make too much food—burgers and potato salad and corn and guacamole. Sickly chocolate cakes for dessert.
I make fruit salad, my favorite. I use strawberries and blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. I use cherries and plums and nectarines and apricots. I add kiwi for color, walnuts for crunch.
I live in Boston now, far away from my dusty California town, and I wait all dark winter for the return of spring and the bright burst of bloom and berry.
My parents go on and on about this salad. They say I didn’t need to go such lengths, that it must have cost so much. I don’t tell them I always make this much food, forever afraid of running out.
This is the first time they’ve visited me here, the only other time they boarded a plane to see me when I graduated with my PhD. This is the first time we’ve been alone together without my many siblings. When I visit, I bring food with me in my suitcase because the cupboards are still empty. I have learned to eat before dinner in case the meal runs out.
After a lifetime of making something from nothing, my parents are almost out of sugar. Their adult children are hungry, hungry, even after they leave the house. Sometimes they stop by my parent’s house and take food from the cupboards to bring home to their own hungry families.
My parents are visiting to see if they might retire here because Daddy’s skin is dark with age spots like a banana, and I finally understand what it means to be kissed by a lifetime of hard labor in the sun. They need to retire, but won’t because there is no money, there never was, and they can’t imagine quitting work because they can already see through the empty cupboards to the wall.
“Let me whip something up,” I say at breakfast, pouring berries into a pan to make sweet syrup for the pancakes. I recently bought a house on a few acres of woods with room for my parents, and at breakfast we eat and say, “Mmm mmm. Aren’t we lucky?”
The woods are lush and green, and the first spring I find wild asparagus shooting up from the ground, blackberries dotting my yard, glistening from the vines.
“Blackberries growing right in your own yard,” Daddy says. “Imagine that.”
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery.