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Magic Happens Excerpt: Picking Blueberries

 

 

“Tell me a good story about your father,” he said.

 

I told him about the time Maryellen and I went to pick blueberries in the woods in Maine one Friday afternoon. I must have been about ten years-old. Maryellen was eight.


Even though my parents never had any money, Ma somehow figured out a way for us to spend a couple of weeks every summer at the Agimenticus Inn in York Beach. I suspect she helped Mrs. Thurston out with the washing in exchange for the cost of our rooms. Sometimes Maryellen and I would race back from the beach and find Ma out back with Mrs. Thurston, rubbing wet towels up and down on the old scrubbing board.

York Beach was so different from South Boston! We’d spend our days at the beach swimming in the icy water, and after supper we’d play outside with the kids who lived at the top of the hill behind the Inn. They showed us secret places in the woods behind their house where wild blueberries grew. Ma would drop the berries on top of our Rice Krispies every morning and if we picked enough berries, she’s make a pie. 

 

That particular day, we were out of berries. I promised Ma that Maryellen and I would pick some for her. 

“I want you girls back here in an hour,” Ma said. “Your Da will be coming on the early bus.”

We carried two aluminum saucepans from Mrs. Thurston’s kitchen and climbed over the old stone wall into the woods. Maryellen was a city kid who maneuvered through the traffic on Dorchester Avenue without flinching, but she was scared of the woods.

“What if we see a wild animal?”

I laughed. “Maybe we’ll see a rabbit. Those are the only wild animals here.”

 

I stomped the high grass down, and we set off into a new part of the woods. Maryellen trotted along beside me.

There were lots of bushes —big, wild things that caught out clothes with dry crackly branches. There were sticker-burr bushes that were all sharp and spiny, and patches of fragrant bayberries that looked like little pale blueberries, but you couldn’t eat those. We passed small scrub pines and a clump of white birch trees.

“Remember these trees,” I said, pointing to the white bark. “They’ll help us find our way back.”

 

After a few minutes, Maryellen started to whine. “I’m hot. I don’t see any blueberries.” 

I didn’t see any berries either. Would we have to go home empty-handed? 

Just then, a big crow caw-cawed and flew right over our heads. Maryellen ducked.

“It’s only a bird, you baby,” I said.

The crow cawed again and settled on the top branch of the biggest blueberry bush I’d ever seen.

“Over here!” I cried.

We picked our way through the underbrush, the sticker burrs scratching our bare legs and getting stuck on our shorts. The crow flew off, but there, where he had perched, were half a dozen blueberry bushes, each nearly ten feet high. The top branches were loaded with ripe berries. 

 

“Can you climb up?” Maryellen asked me.

“I don’t think the bushes won’t hold my weight.” 

I looked around and noticed an old, dead tree, an elm, right next to the blueberries.

“I’m going to climb that tree,” I said.

 

Now I had never in my life climbed a tree. In fact, I was deathly afraid of heights. I had once insisted that the man at Funland Amusement Park stop the Ferris wheel to let me off after only one turn around the top. Normally he just laughed when kids screamed at him, but something in my face convinced him to pull the big lever back and bring the horrible contraption to a stop.

 

I was sitting with Da but Ma and Maryellen were left swinging on top of the wheel as the old man braced the lever with his thick work boot and muttered to me to get the hell off the ride before he changed his mind. I staggered out of the swinging car and fell to my knees on the ground. J. J. followed and put his arm around me, laughing.

“Thassa a girl, Kate,” he said. “The good Lord meant for us to live on the ground, not fly through the air like the birds.”

 

J. J. and I watched Ma and Maryellen whirl around on the Ferris wheel for the rest of their ride. Maryellen cackled at me every time their car swung past us, but I didn’t care. I was just glad to be with Da on solid ground.

 

But that day in the woods, I had never seen so many ripe blueberries just waiting to be picked and baked into one of Ma’s delicious pies! Maybe J. J. would sit in Mrs. Thurston’s kitchen after dinner and watch Ma roll the pie dough out the way he sometimes did. After we ate the pie,  J. J. could take us out behind the Inn to see the Milky Way and Orion’s belt.

“Give me a hand,” I said to Maryellen.

 

She clasped her two hands and locked her fingers together. I put the saucepan on top of my head like a metal cap and stepped gingerly into her hands.

“One … two … three!” she said, and she boosted me up to the lowest branch of the dead tree.

 

From there, it was pretty easy. I looked up into the branches and grabbed the natural handholds and footholds as though I were a female Tom Sawyer, a country kid born to climb trees. I held tight to a branch and reached for the berries. They fell into my saucepan with satisfying ping-pings.

 

There were so many, I filled my pan in only a few minutes. I ate some too—they were delicious!—and never took my eyes off the wonderful, high bushes.

“We should have brought bigger pans,” I called to Maryellen.

 

The pan was full. How I was going to get back down without spilling the berries?

“I’m going to pass the pan down to you,” I called to Maryellen.

“Okay,” she called back. That’s when I looked down.

Maryellen was about a mile below me on the ground. Suddenly I felt dizzy and my mouth went dry. I wrapped my arms around the tree trunk and held on for dear life. 

When Maryellen saw me, she started laughing, just the way she did the night I had to get off the Ferris wheel.

“Fraidy cat! Fraidy cat!” she sang, but when I didn’t respond, she stopped.

“Kate?” she said. “Are you coming down?”

“No,” I whispered. “I can’t.”

I was afraid I was going to wet my pants.

 

“We’ll be late,” Maryellen whimpered. “Ma will be mad at us.”

She was right, but even the thought of Ma couldn’t make me move.

“We’ll have to stay here all night,” she wailed. “We’ll get eaten by wild animals.”

If I ever got back to the ground, I was going to strangle that little brat!

 

“Go back past those white birch trees,” I said hoarsely. “Turn right and climb over the stone wall. Tell Ma to call the fire department.”

I had visions of noble firemen raising their extension ladders to rescue me. It didn’t occur to me that no one could possibly get a fire truck through that underbrush.

“I want to stay here with you,” Maryellen whined. “They’ll have to send a search party out.” She seemed to brighten a little with that thought. 

“Maybe we’ll get our pictures in the paper,” she said hopefully.

 

“The only way you’ll get your picture in the paper is if you bring help,” I said. “Go get Ma!”

I loosened my grip enough to fling a few blueberries at her. One of them must have hit her on the head, but I just couldn’t look down to see.

“Hey, these are good,” she said. The little creep was eating!

“You can have all the berries as soon as you go and get help,” I said.

Maryellen was silent, considering this offer.

“If you don’t go, I’m going to throw up,” I warned her. “And I’ll make sure it all falls right down on your head.”

“All right, I’m going,” she said.

 

How long did I hang up there in the tree? It must have been a half hour or more. The minute Maryellen left, I said an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and an Act of Contrition, just in case the dead tree collapsed and I fell to my death on the forest floor. Thanks to the Act of Contrition, I knew I’d go straight to heaven if I died, but I’d really rather live—at least until I was sixteen, and I could wear lipstick, and drive a car. I wondered if it was a sin to think like that. I decided to try not to think at all.

 

I hung there not thinking, clutching the tree, the pan of blueberries squeezed against my chest. Nothing happened. Slowly I opened my eyes. Yup, I was still alive.

 

After a few minutes I realized that as long as I didn’t look down, I was okay. I looked out over the woods at the tops of trees. I could see a big bird’s nest in a tree across from mine and an area of flattened grass just beyond the blueberry bushes. The crow I’d seen earlier flapped by again, and a blue jay perched on a big bush and screeched at me. When I didn’t move, he flew off.

 

Everything was so quiet. The only sound was the trilling of grasshoppers. It was peaceful, beautiful. I thought I heard a faint “Ooooo ooooo” from the horn on Nubble Light, nearly a mile away, then I heard rustling in the bushes down below. I was about to call out when I realized I didn’t hear any voices. If the fire department were coming to rescue me, I’d hear their trucks and their voices, wouldn’t I? Maybe there were wild animals in the woods after all. I clamped my lips shut and squeezed the tree trunk with my arms and legs. I really had to go to the bathroom.

 

There was another rustle, and then my heart nearly stopped. A mother deer and a small, spotted fawn stood motionless in the tall grass below. The mother looked around with huge dark eyes. Her ears stood up on top of her head, alert for sounds. Her baby stood next to her, nearly invisible in the dappled light.

“Oh!” I breathed.

 

The mother stepped daintily forward and bent her head to nibble. The baby leaped into the grass and jumped around like it had springs on its feet. I almost laughed, but I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to scare them.

 

The fawn settled down to nibble next to its mother, and the doe licked his face. I forgot my predicament. I felt blessed, honored, holy even, as though I were kneeling in church. The fawn munched on a tuft of grass, and I knew my prayers would be answered. I was going to be saved.

 

Off in the distance, I heard voices calling, “Kate! Kate!” It was J. J.

“Over here,” I yelled. When I looked back, the deer had vanished.

J. J. and Mr. Thurston came crashing through the brush carrying a long wooden ladder between them. Ma and Mrs. Thurston and Maryellen were right behind them.

“Kathleen Driscoll!” Ma yelled.

“I’m here, Ma,” I called, and I started to cry.

 

Mr. Thurston propped the ladder against the tree and J. J. sprinted up. He held out his arms.

“Come to your Da, Katie,” he said.

I reached out, and the entire saucepan full of ripe blueberries rained down on Ma and Maryellen and the Thurstons down below. The empty pan landed on a rock with a bang.

“We’ll have pie tonight,” J.J. said, laughing.

 

I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms and legs around J.J. like I was a little monkey, and he carried me down. 

“You scared us half to death, young lady!” Ma said, but I knew she was glad I was okay. Maryellen scrambled around on the ground, picking up berries.

 

We all went back to the Agamenticus Inn, and Mrs. Thurston barbecued hamburgers for us on the big stone grill out back while Ma rolled out the pie dough in the kitchen. J. J. pointed out Orion’s belt and Cassiopeia and Cancer, the crab, in the sky, even though all I could see were little dots of light, not the fantastic pictures J. J. described as he waved his arms around. I sat in his lap, munching my hamburger, and later the six of us dug in and ate the entire hot blueberry pie. J. J. patted his stomach and said it was the best he’d ever tasted.

 

“That’s a wonderful story,” Bob said.

“You know the best part?” I said. “Ma told me years later that J. J. was scared to death of heights, too. She said he was praying as hard as he could to Saint John and Saint Joseph to get us off that Ferris wheel that night. She said if I hadn’t convinced the man to stop the ride, she was afraid J. J. would expire right there on top of the wheel.”

 

I felt tears burn in the corners of my eyes.

“But he ran up that ladder in the tree like he was climbing a flight of stairs back home on G Street,”   I said. “He told Ma he'd do anything to rescue his precious daughter.”

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