The Blackberry Room: #1

Norm Gibbons

He metered out a scant water supply for his vegetable garden. Fourteen days into August and no rain. Even so, his blackberries loved the dry hot weather.

In the late evenings, when the sun had set behind the mountain, and the darkness and coolness returned to the land, moments before he drifted into the deep slumbers of sleep, the old man imagined the roots of his blackberry canes excavating deep tunnels into the lush soil, and when their tentacles located a damp spot, he saw them, as if he naturally lived there below with them, suck dry the goodness from the earth. And below, he watched the good earth turn to a fine dust, sacrificing its vast storage of moisture and nutrients to the exuberant brambles above. As he drifted further into the world of sleep, he saw himself above the ground, inside their blackberry room, filling bucket after bucket with the sweet, glossy, black fruits of his labour, happily working through the long night, until he awoke refreshed for another day.

The idea of a blackberry room had been hers. She said, “We could cut the entry here. Three feet wide and five feet deep. Then clear a big area inside, make it a perfect circle, fifteen feet in diameter, no more, no less. You know how I hate squares and rectangles. We could even have narrow side rooms like spokes radiating from a wheel hub.”

He said, “And what would we do in this room?”

“We’d pick blackberries, silly.”

It took him five years to complete the project, to get the enclosure to the level of satisfaction that he thought she would have accepted. Of course, maintenance was on-going, completion never becoming the fact, the room always demanding his attention, and constantly warning him that reversion to the previous state of unrestrained wildness could spontaneously erupt in a flicker and flash.

During the fall months, once the harvest season had ended, he would prune back the inside walls, the entry walls and spoke walls to her pre-conceived dimensions. And during the winter, whenever the weather was tolerable, he grubbed the floor clean of threatening new shoots with his hoe. Occasionally, he had nightmares, where platoons of burgeoning runners and spears rose up through the floor and sheathed him in a prison of thorns.

She had not given him instructions regarding the length or number of spokes to issue from their circular room. He decided on three, and each year added another two feet of length. The spoke walls were ten feet long now and three feet wide. Each of them proved very productive, even sections, perpetually shaded.

Neither had she given him instructions about the room’s height. He stood a tall man with long arms and nibble fingers and could reach a full eight feet without standing on his tiptoes, so eight feet became the standard wall height. If stray shoots climbed higher and then arched into their room, he used his long handled pruners to dispose of the intruders.

The continual pruning encouraged the blackberry canes to bud extravagantly. The mass of white flowers brightened the room with excitement, attracting loud swarms of diligent pollen gleaners.   Soon clusters of pollinated fruits cascaded in their abundance; small, hard and green, eventually large and plump, black and shiny, and rich with the gifts from the sun. During the climaxing days of August, the walls shone like polished black marble from antiquity.

He collected only the ripest berries, but scolded himself whenever the over ripe ones desiccated on their racemes or fell to the floor. There were days when he worked from early morning until nightfall and still delicious berries remained unpicked. The birds got those.

Each day he chose a single blackberry for himself. He sought to discover the unachievable, and believed that for his taste buds to experience the sublime, they must be denied abundance.

He filled two chest freezers each year, laying the berries out on baking sheets for a quick blast freeze and then bagged them in extra large Ziplocs. He always sucked the air from the bag before zipping the seal.

He did not use gloves. During the season his fingers and hands acquired a collection of thorns though they never festered. Soon the thorns disappeared from wear, but others took their place. And he did not wear long sleeved shirts, so his arms received a multitude of scratches. Blood would trickle down his arms and into his armpits especially when he harvested the highest hanging fruit. Later, in the evenings, when he watched the sunset, and traced the bats carving their zigzag creases into the still night air, and listened to the querying hoots of a resident barred owl, he came to enjoy the irritation from the thorns and the stings from his nasty scratches. The wounds confirmed that he had a productive day. He didn’t understand how or why, but the pain, sometimes merely an annoyance, stimulated tucked-away memories. They became the fodder for his dream world, which often included her.

Once the season had ended, he walked the short distance to the post office every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, usually in the mid-afternoon when he felt certain that the mail had been sorted. He primarily went for fire starter, but made a habit of taking a full zip lock with him. He gave his bag of frozen blackberries to any person who had not yet received his gift that year. He always said to them, “You get home right away before they thaw.”

People called him the Blackberry Man. When he died, only the postmistress remembered his Christian name.

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Author’s note: Many times an anonymous, unidentified black and white photograph suggests a story. I’m working on a B & W series.