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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.
I could see Mercy was all about herself. She’s changed people said. She’s not like that any more. Give her the benefit of the doubt. She was gone by morning. So was he. And just like that, I had no husband, no friend and no one to blame but myself.
(c) Janni Styles
(inspired by the fifty word story challenge)
The Sunday my teenaged brother accidentally slammed the car door shut on my hand is more vivid in my mind then my forever altered fingerprint. It wasn’t that I had never witnessed my father’s rage before. His impatience with the repetitive noises children naturally make was no secret in our family. Neither were Dad’s scathing outbursts of cursing when he reached the height of frustration. But his silence that day terrified me. No yelling, no swearing, just the rhythmic crunching of boots crossing gravel.
To appease my father, my brother uselessly repeated,”It was an accident. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“Stop it! Get in the car! We have to go to the emergency room!” My mother shrilled through the tension as she wrapped a towel from the clothesline around my hand.
With a bewildered expression, my father backed toward the car. My bloody nosed brother stared at us as we pulled out of the driveway but he did not return my wave at him through the rear window. It’s okay, I whispered. At seven years old, I already knew that Dad calmed as quickly as he riled himself up.
Child rearing was not my father’s area of expertise. Country music was and, competing in several talent shows, Dad rivaled artists who later achieved international fame. In one event he had hoped to place third and win a new stereo. Instead, he was awarded the first place trophy and a chance to advance in the industry. But a growing family demanded a steady pay check and Dad abandoned his musical dreams.
A machinist by trade, his skilled hands eventually only played the guitar at home on weekends. No more band rehearsals or overnight jam sessions. With guitar in hand, he left when I was thirteen. All I knew was that he was deserting us.
Some of us are still licking wounds from the ensuing sense of rejection and abandonment. Mine manifested as an inability to release possessions and relationships long past the expiry date of their goodness. A greeting card hoarder, I held onto people and things that were no longer life-giving. I now know that I was clinging to a self-worth that hinged on how much others valued me, including my father. I considered death among one of his many human short-comings because when he died, so did the love he gave me.
Dad lived simply with a fondness for good food, rye whisky, Sunday drives, nature and practical jokes. A charismatic character with a strong sense of right and wrong that is vivid in my mind, he would hate it if I painted a posthumous image of perfection. “That’s not right,” he would say. “Tell it right or don’t tell it at all.”
A man ill-equipped to deal with the curve balls life tossed him, my father was completely freed when performing. He often encouraged us children to take turns pressing an ear against his battered acoustic guitar while he strummed. The only stress visible in him then was his taut neck cords straining to hit the high notes. And he did.
Recently, I realized that my father’s gift was far greater than the gift of music alone. Observing the passion of a man lost in the rapture of creativity was a magical experience. Through him, I not only heard but saw and felt the music. I still do.
When I was still a teenager and my father was 41, he left this earthly world for what I have always hoped is a better place. Over time, I feel I have come to know him better than I did when he was alive. Youthful preoccupation blinded me to the light of love on his face in the photos I now cherish and pore over while listening to his music. His songs speak directly of the heartache he endured and , more poignantly, to the suffering he knew he caused. Every time I hear the lyrics I recall my brother’s words the day my fingerprint was altered and I can almost hear Dad saying,”It was an accident. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Reverence on my part, perhaps, because my father lived simply but he was not a simple man. The most glorified memory I have of him is one I, regrettably, was not present for. It is of a man who, weeks before his cancer riddled body fought the final fight, created a haunting legacy of words and music that tell me who he was and, in turn, who I am.
Now 40, I have learned a couple of things myself. I have realized that the greater part of being loved is loving yourself, being at peace with yourself. I know that people must follow their hearts or it can make them sick, possibly even kill them with an insidious, joy corroding cancer of the spirit.
Thanks to my father, I strive to “make my own music” by writing full-time. I left a mainstream career track for humble part-time work that supports my learning and basic needs. I no longer feel stretched forty ways but there is no steady pay check for following the call of the soul and being true to your creativity. There is usually no check at all. But I can’t let that stop me.
In discouraging moments I think of my father’s creative life cut short by obligations, then by cancer at age 41 and I continue writing because I have no choice. I know Dad would completely understand this and, wherever he is, I hope he knows that being in his life was one of the highest notes in mine.
(c) 1999 Published in Anthology of Winning Literature
~ all rights reserved by author ~
Gallivanting through the campground with my prized Christmas ice skates slung around my neck seemed perfectly reasonable. We were allowed to bring only one treasure each. Us in our sandy wet sneakers, bedding down in grassy sleeping bags, savouring fire-charred wieners and daylily friendships that bloom in morning light only to wither by sundown. Dad strumming us to the stars his idol, Hank Snow, reached not long before him, my twin older brothers’ breaking voices harmonizing along. Mom, my little sister and me trudging down to the shower house together, my sister spouting about the row of cubicles: “Hey! This is fun! We can talk to each other while we shower!” The bewildered quiet from her stall that first day when I shouted, who cares, just shutup, wouldja? Letting her baby babble course over me along with the warm water after that, somehow, made everything seem better.
Still, our parents claim that some kids hadn’t a crust of bread between them fast lost ground. We stopped complaining of missing our friends and Sunday pot roast. I watched my brothers over plates of beans, the aroma of grilling steak tormenting us, their spoons shoveling like prisoners in a movie. They swam in the lake and reread faded comic books and even helped us stage plays or talent shows in the sheltered picnic platform by the lake. Mostly, they were still like their Beatles albums and record player. I studied the lake often, equally dreading and dreaming of the surface icing over.
Newcomers revived us, some joining our father to play guitar around the campfire while we all sang loud and playful, our Mom carefree on summer vacation like other mothers laughing boisterously about the challenges of running “make-do households.” Me befriending girls with bikes who made me believe myself when I said I, too, loved camping so much, I could camp forever and never go home. My brothers teaming up with new pals to play volleyball or lounging on the dock to drool over bikinied girls and shiny boats.
Seeing those same friendly faces alter when they took another look at us and our campsite, erected since June with school soon starting. The awkwardness suspending all of us, even those free to return home to a life they no longer wished to share. A collective breath-holding where I feared them clamming up, taking away all the hope they’d given us, right along with them back to their houses with soft beds, lemon-scented polish and frilly white curtains.
Hearing the voice of a solitary angel stave off all the murmurs in the stiff, uncertain air. My little sisters face steady against flickering firelight, her doll safely in hand while she piped up, showing the way, uniting us all in laughter one night by announcing with a genuine pride no one dared argue: this is our real house.