Just to shake things up a little, I thought this week I’d serve up a little snippet of my newest novel, Good On Paper. In this excerpt, Elizabeth describes a day spent picking blackberries.
We tumbled out of the Chevy station wagon into the sweltering, buzzing morning. Our swimsuits, faded and snagged, lay tangled up with ragged bath towels in the back of the car. Momma had said that if we picked enough blackberries we could go swimming in the river. The sun stung my shoulders and nose, but shadows still lay blue and cool on the fine sand under the shaggy trees. A breeze ruffled over us. Momma handed out tin buckets and gloves—one of each for each of us—and pointed us toward the brambles along the river.
She followed, staggering under the weight of grease-stained, splintered plywood sheets, her slender, muscular arms tight and golden in the sun. She tipped the boards into the brambles, making fragile, unreliable bridges into the tangle’s mysterious depths and pulling the glistening, berry-laden top branches down within reach. We were alone in that pocket of sunshine, a universe away from the house, and even farther from Daddy.
In an unprecedented act of bravery and overall saneness, Momma had driven us back home while Daddy stayed behind in Illinois to help Grandma. It had been a month, and already Daddy seemed like ancient history. We didn’t know Grandpa. He had lived in Illinois, after all, and we had never visited him and Grandma before that summer. It was hard to feel sad about losing him when it meant that for the first time in my life I felt safe. Momma made us be quiet for the first day of the trip back, out of respect for Grandpa, but then even she caught the giddiness of it, driving through those long summer days with her arm out the window, the wind ruffling her short, wavy hair, the radio crooning songs by a man named Elvis Presley. She ignored us unless we asked her a question, and then she’d just answer quietly. Sometimes, later in the trip, she smiled.
At home, the house felt different. Momma walked faster, and she, not Elaine, supervised our baths at night and got us breakfast in the morning. We woke late and came downstairs to find Momma making us special breakfasts or out weeding the garden in the morning sunshine. Once Sarah and I even saw her sitting at the table, a brown grocery bag in front of her, a pencil in her hand.
“What’cha doin’, Momma?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, and went to fold the laundry.
“Look,” Sarah said. “It’s a tomato.”
Sure enough, Momma had drawn a tomato. The lines swept and flowed, circled into the tomato’s round, glossy body, curled out into delicate leaves and tendrils. Momma had drawn that. Momma. I hadn’t known she could do such a thing. Sarah took the bag, tore out the picture, and stuck it up on the refrigerator next to Elaine’s last picture of Harry, the one that had been there before we left, that nobody had the heart to take down now, even though we all knew Elaine was carefully not looking at the refrigerator these days.
That beautiful tomato signaled a change for us. We ran through the days and laughed at the supper table. We had pillow fights, dashing from room to room in the moonlight. I didn’t think about Grandpa at all, or about Daddy back helping his own Momma sort through their past, apportioning memories among his brothers and sisters.
Momma was better. I knew it was true because she’d drawn a tomato. And because she had decided to make jam, which was why we were at the river picking blackberries. A blue heron flopped heavily overhead. Blackbirds creaked nearby. A lark warbled.
Sarah pushed me. I pushed her back. DJ stood with his finger in his mouth, his white hair shining in the sun, his knees chubby and brown above his boots. Momma worked a glove over her hand, slipped the bucket handle over her belt, and began stripping the high brambles, leaving the low ones for us.
She picked quickly, gracefully. This was not the Momma I had always known, the woman who stumbled through her life. This was a mysterious woman whose hair had grown out to spring thick, golden, and wavy, concealing the scarred patch on her head, a woman who wore clam diggers and crisp, sleeveless blouses instead of shapeless housedresses, who listened to Elvis Presley and smiled when my sisters sang along, who drew graceful, elegant little pictures.
Elaine grabbed a bucket, tied it to the tail of her shirt, slid the stiff, greasy leather gauntlet onto her left hand, and stepped onto the rocking, tippy board. She jumped a few times, forcing the board down into the brambles.
The gauntlet slipped down and she shot her arm above her head, catching it before it slid off, then reached out and grabbed a sagging bramble with the glove and stripped the berries, dropping them by handfuls into her bucket. She was almost as fast as Momma.
Burning to be big girls, Sarah and I grabbed buckets and tied them to our shirttails, too. We snatched for brambles and tried to strip the berries with Momma and Elaine’s easy grace, but it was beyond us. Our gloves were too big, too stiff to bend with our hands. The knots holding our buckets to our shirts kept slipping. Our picking hands were soon full of scratches and punctures. “Gol dang it,” Sarah swore when a bramble dug into her calf. I sucked in my breath and shot a look at Momma. She should have whipped Sarah for swearing. Instead she just said, “Careful, honey.” Sarah let out her breath, then bent and carefully pulled the bramble loose.
DJ staggered into a bramble hidden in the grass and curled up, howling. Momma went to pick him up and kiss the angry red scratches streaking his legs. DJ’s head fell back against her shoulder and his eyes closed. The day lay sultry and peaceful upon us. A snatch of music rippled from somewhere far away. I cocked my head to listen. Momma sat in shade, leaning against a tree, her berry bucket and glove by her side. DJ, still little more than a baby, slept in her arms. The sun struck golden sparks off the delicate hairs on her arms. “Bring me the car quilt, Sarah honey,” she finally said, and her voice was just another river sound, low and burring like the bees’ hum of the bees and the far-away music.
Sarah turned. Her bucket, sagging below her knees, bumped her shins. She tripped, staggered toward the edge of the board, teetered, caught herself, and kicked out impatiently. The bucket flew up and smacked her in the face, scattering a hail of hard-won blackberries around us. “Ow!” she whispered angrily, rubbing her nose, tears standing in her eyes.
“Don’t kick the bucket, Sarah,” Elaine scolded softly.
Sarah hopped off the board and limped toward the car and the car quilt while I gathered the scattered berries. And then I heard it. A soft, rough sound. My eyes flew up, seeking the source, and settled on my mother’s face, glowing in the dappled shade, her eyes gentle on Sarah, her mouth curved.
My mother was laughing. I stared, awestruck.
“Let me see your bucket,” Momma murmured. Sarah limped over, angry tears sparkling in her eyes. Momma leaned forward, careful not to disturb DJ, and peeked over the edge of Sarah’s bucket. A few berries rolled forlorn in the bottom. “That’s real good, honey,” Momma said. “Go get your suit on.” She lifted a thin brown hand and smoothed Sarah’s bright white hair back from her sweaty red face.
“But what about the jam?” Elaine asked. “We don’t have enough berries.”
“Who needs jam?” Momma asked. “How many of these days do we get? Hurry, now. Nobody should have to work after they’ve kicked the bucket.” She laughed again.
We stared at her, not getting the joke. She looked back at us, and then she smiled a beautiful, peaceful smile and even though she was a stranger, we fell in love with her.
“Come swimming with us, Momma?” Elaine whispered.
“When DJ wakes up.” And then she leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes. The sun poured over her delicate ankles and flickered on her face and slender golden arms.
We ran for the car, set our buckets on the tailgate, scrambled into our suits, and dashed for the river, toe-tipping over the rough grass, wincing and pulling goat head thorns out of our bare feet, hotfooting it across the scalding sand. And then the water poured cool around us, and Momma sat up to watch over us. “Don’t go in too deep,” she called softly. Sarah and I splashed in the shallows. Elaine waded deeper, standing up to her thighs in the slow-flowing water. She raised slim tanned arms, bent her head with its shining cap of white-gold curls, and dove under the surface, swimming against the current. Her head broke the surface in silver splashes and she rose, gasping and laughing. For once she wasn’t thinking about Harry. I could tell because she had forgotten to be holy.
Sarah and I dug a tadpole corral and filled it with hapless tadpoles fished from a nearby mossy puddle, then paddled near the river’s edge. DJ finally woke up and Momma brought him down to wade in the hot, shallow pools between the white, dry rocks. Elaine lay on her back, floating with the current, a pale saintly mermaid with a wavering platinum halo. I heard it again—faint music. I looked at my sisters, at Momma, at DJ. They were laughing and splashing, so I guessed they didn’t hear. The sun sparkled on the river and flashed bright on their wet, tarnished-platinum heads. Leaves rustled gently in a treetop breeze. My skin stung, then cooled as Sarah and I raced through sun, through shade, into the river, and back into sun. As the afternoon waned we settled on the shore, letting the water lap around our feet. Elaine came and flopped down beside me. I lay back between Sarah and Elaine and pillowed my head on my arms. Effortlessly, thoughtlessly, the tune I had been hearing all day vibrated rustily in the back of my throat.
Sarah and Elaine’s heads jerked around. “Bethie’s singing, Momma,” Elaine said, shocked.
“What?” asked Momma. She knelt beside the river, holding baby DJ so he wouldn’t fall in.
“She can’t be,” Momma said. “Bethie can’t talk.”
“She is, too,” Sarah insisted.
“Bethie?” Momma turned and peered at me, eyebrows raised.
The tune withered in my throat. Momma stood and hurried over. “Watch DJ, Lainie,” she said, thrusting him into Elaine’s arms as she leaned over me. “Bethie, honey, were you singing?”
I stared up at her, my throat locked and aching.
Momma’s eyes got soft in a way I had never seen them before. And then she did a strange thing. She sat down beside me, and pulled me into her lap, even though I was a big girl, and she put her arms around me and rocked me gently in the sunshine. And I felt tears, warm and wet on my shoulder.
I closed my eyes and listened to the music and felt it trembling in my throat, and I wanted more than anything to let it out, but I knew better, though I didn’t know why. The knowledge that survival depended on silence stretched beyond memory. My eyes drifted shut. I laid my head on my mother’s shoulder, felt the sun on my back and the trembling in my throat, and just let her rock me. And all the while the music drifted over us.