Highly Commended in the Cambridge Flash Fiction Prize 2021
Traces of the Harvest
My grandmother’s wisdom is stitched to my heart with blackberry thorns.
In sun and cloud, I trailed behind her, wandering autumnal countryside in search of free fruit. Not too gritty, not pecked by birds nor chewed by bugs. Not too near the road, where dust and diesel fumes will spoil the berries. Not too low on the bush, go above the level where dogs and foxes can spray.
Not too green, not too squishy. Berries won’t ripen once picked from the vine, and from autumn they cannot be picked – frosts make the fruit mushy, likely to turn mouldy, fly-blown. Watching, listening, I soaked up the learning.
Eat up, she says, before the devil spits on them.
Michaelmas Feast on the twenty-ninth marks the change of seasons. Then it’s time to finish reaping, start preparing for winter – my grandmother swears that by then, the fruit are past their prime. The Feast day, that September when Archangel Michael defeated Lucifer and banished him from heaven. that day when the angel became a devil.
Lucifer landed hard on his arse in thorny blackberries that covered hell’s floor. Angered, he stamped on the bush with his cloven hooves, breathed diabolical fire on the fruit, sprayed the berries with his satanic spittle…and probably pissed on them too. Whatever he did, he made the berries taste bad.
Remember, she says, after September’s end, blackberries are the Devil’s fruit. Her wisdom seeps into me as I fight the vines before they are past their prime, plucking and feasting, racing against Lucifer.
She examines my brimming ice-cream container with a nod, then licks her thumb and wipes the blood from my bramble scratched arms. She rubs my purple-stained cheeks, traces of the harvest that never made it into her basket.
Laden, we head home.
Jam is best made right away.
In these dimming days of a long northern winter, well past Michaelmas, five hundred grams of fruit of the forest wait in my freezer. Straight from the supermarket, sanitised. Tame.
No vines fended off, no mosquitos slapped. No thorns extracted from my punctured fingers.
No quality control from my grandmother. The berries are delivered to my door, in re-sealable plastic packaging that is printed with instant wisdom.
I guess that’s progress.
When the thawing berries stain my fingers, my heart pangs. I hear her say: Mind your white shirt, those stains linger.
A New Zealand-Irish writer, Alex’s stories are widely anthologised, including in Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, The Broken Spiral (UNESCO Dublin City of Literature Read), The Real Jazz Baby (Best Anthology, 2020 Saboteur Awards), MIROnline, Flash Fiction Festival Anthology and Heron (Katherine Mansfield Society). A finalist for Penguin Random House WriteNow and Irish Novel Fair winner, she writes across genres and forms.
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