Creative Nonfiction by Karen Luke Jackson
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue
Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry-Picking”
The summer my mother was five, she and her older brother Buck went blackberry picking. Working along a fence row, they filled a pail and a cup to the brim with the dark purple fruit prized in summer cobblers. Heading home, he had her carry the cup. Furious she couldn’t present a bucket full of berries to her parents, Mama dashed her small stash to the ground.
“I wasn’t aiming at Buck,” she insisted each time she told the story. “I was just hoppin’ mad, but it broke in front of him and he stepped on the glass.”
A deep gash in the bottom of her brother’s foot spouted blood. Panicked, Mama ran to the house for help. Their father carried him home and packed the wound with spider webs.
“I fanned Buck the whole afternoon hoping he wouldn’t tell on me.”
Growing up in South Georgia, summer work was never finished until Mama’s pantry overflowed with preserves and jellies: pear, fig, quince, and her all-time favorite, blackberry.
A ninety-year-old woman on Daddy’s mail route was our primary source for the wild fruit. She’d fill pails and leave them beside her mailbox for Daddy to sell. What our family didn’t buy, he carried to Wilma’s Beauty Salon, where patrons purchased a gallon for five dollars. Daddy often exchanged wrinkled currency for newly minted bills so that when she opened the envelope he left on top of her mail, crisp George Washingtons and Abe Lincolns greeted her.
Daddy could’ve lost his job if the federal government had found out what he was doing. But she lived off a small social security check. He said it was worth the risk of getting caught to help her earn some extra spending money.
In the kitchen, I watched Mama heat the berries then use a battered wooden spoon to smash them through a sieve. Tiny seeds, the kind that stick between your teeth, and fragile skins separated from the juices. To rid the pulp, she strained the mixture through cheesecloth. Then she added sugar to the liquid in equal parts and simmered the syrup until it thickened.
Mama knew by how the bubbles roiled when to pull the pot off the eye and pour the gelling juice into Mason jars. For the next few hours, we’d hear lids pop as the jelly cooled, a signal that the batch was sealed for winter safekeeping. When Mama held up a jar to admire her handiwork, light bounced off the jelly’s blackness.
When Uncle Buck was dying, both legs amputated to slow the cancer ravaging his body, Mama visited often. One day she found him lying in soiled linens and cleaned him up, a considerable undertaking since Mama couldn’t change a baby’s diapers without throwing up. A weak stomach was a family trait, one her brother shared.
“Wank,” he whispered, invoking the childhood nickname he’d given her, “do you remember when I almost bled to death?”
“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I was afraid Papa would blame me if you died.”
“When I’m gone, I want you to remember. No matter how mad I got with you after that, I never tattled.”
Blackberry bushes ramble along a path where I now hike in North Carolina, the fruit ripe, entangled in thorns. I risk being scratched, reach for the nearest cluster, one that doesn’t require me to step into tall weeds where a rattlesnake may be coiled. My teeth sink into a purple globe the size of a thimble. Like a popped water balloon, the berry bursts on my tongue. A shimmer of sweetness follows, sweetness so tart my skin tingles.