The humid summer heat never fails to rekindle memories of childhood holidays, taken to coincide with blueberry season in rural Nova Scotia where our relatives live. Wild blueberry bushes grow boundlessly there in fields, ditches and along roadsides, enticing all who pass by. Until my eleventh year, I was blissfully unenlightened about their role as naïve keepers of dangerous family secrets.
Following routine assurances of the contrary to our mothers who went to lunch in town, I became lost. Separated from my berry-picking cousins, I contentedly wandered among the bushes, leisurely plucking and eating my way across the fields. My bare feet navigated earth so warm that I longed to stretch out on it to daydream under the cloudless sky but I resisted because of a fear of snakes inherited from my mother.
On the advice of my aunt who claimed that earth vibrations send snakes the other way, I rigorously marched every so often and, figuring that a little extra racket wouldn’t hurt, I bellered out songs made popular by the Carpenters and the Hollies. By the time the fields were bronzed in late afternoon light, my blueberry enthusiasms had sufficiently flagged and I started homeward.
My aunt’s white clapboard house stood oddly silent, all the leaves on the stand of alder trees beside it so motionless it appeared that they, too, had succumbed to the wilting heat. Despite the scolding I knew I’d catch for the map-like stains purpling my yellow cotton dress, I was so focused on getting something to drink that I was more annoyed than alarmed when an animal mewled from within the screened sleeping porch. Knowing that my cousins did not have any pets, I quietly set down my half-full berry pail and peered in over the scorched remains of a window box. With my visor-cupped hands barely touching the screen, I strained to make sense of the shapes and shadows beyond it.
Everything seemed calm inside the porch, too, not a squirrel, raccoon or barn cat in sight. Thinking I had imagined the cry, I was about to give up when an embracing couple emerged out of the dimness. It struck me that they were not aware of my presence and, although I did not yet know the meaning of the word ‘voyeur,’ panic paralyzed me. I dared not move or even attempt to conceal myself lest they notice me.
Giant lemon and lime flowers adorning the woman’s snug fitting dress bloomed anew when she stepped backward into a narrow shaft of sunlight, her sleek, dark hair swaying with every motion. Flinging her head back, her body arched and in one tinkling, charismatic laugh, I recognized Jeannie-Marie, a young woman our parents had hired to mind us on Saturday night while they attended a dance.
Mesmerized by this movie-star Jeannie-Marie, far removed from the pony-tailed girl who had seemed near my own age when we had cooked hotdogs and watched our favorite TV shows together, I could not tear myself away. A crimson lipstick smear on one of her cheeks seemed only to heighten her flawlessness and the perfection of her full, glossy lips. In that instant, I longed to be just like Jeannie-Marie when I grew up. Often praised for my brains but not my looks, I was certain it must feel wonderful to be so beautiful, so irresistible.
Tension rose with each heat wave around me, making the air seem hotter still and I could feel more moisture leeching from my body with every wary exhale. My mouth grew so dry I could not muster spit enough to swallow.
The man abruptly tugged Jeannie-Marie toward him, his strangely familiar hands on her back and his face shielded from view by her hair. A sickly feeling overcame me and I wished I hadn’t eaten so many blueberries. With fear prickling through my veins, I decided to leave before they discovered me.
At that same exact second, Jeannie-Marie began leading the man toward the cot by the screen I was staring through, her mouth pressed to his all the while as they turned so that she was backing toward me. Suddenly my father’s sun-stricken features were caught in a ray of light beaming down into the murky porch, his widened eyes mirroring the shock and sorrow in my own.
Thirst forgotten, I bolted past the empty rain barrel to the field behind the house where bird-ravaged blueberry bushes had drawn all the goodness out of the parched ground. I didn’t stop running until I reached the river where I dove in and swam until I was weak and my brain was amply saturated with the notion that I’d suffered heatstroke. The unmerciful summer sun was to blame for my temporary delirium.
Near dusk, I found my mother and aunt amiably fixing dinner together in the cozy kitchen the way they did every night of our vacation, the air sweetly fragranced by three pies cooling by the sink. But the dusty white jackets on my blueberries proved no protection from the withering sun and I had to throw them out. Still, I didn’t learn the meaning of ‘adulterer’ until much later and despite my mother’s assertions that they have none, to this day my most vivid recollection of blueberry picking is the prickles.
© Janni Styles
Note: This story placed first in 1999 in an international writing contest against over 700 entrants. Fiction writing, especially “slice of life” fiction as in this story is what I most love to write along with creative non-fiction. This short story was first published on this blog on March 19, 2011.