Wild Blackberries

Frances Sonnabend

Adam looked out the kitchen window into the backyard. The property sloped two hundred feet to a bank that dropped away abruptly to the shores of Puget Sound. The full moon was rising, fat and yellow-orange, silhouetting the distant city skyline and casting a faint glow over the water separating Seattle from Bainbridge Island.

Out there, in the far corner of the yard, he saw the multiple interlocking arches of a wild blackberry thicket, seven feet high and twice as wide. "Tomorrow," Adam muttered, "I'm getting rid of you."

He opened the refrigerator and took out another ale. He was not a heavy drinker, but right now he wished he had some hard stuff -- he needed something to anesthetize his brain, dull the pain from the gnawing teeth of worry. He looked at his wristwatch again. Only thirty-five minutes since the last time he'd called the hospital.

He returned to the living room and dropped into the recliner chair where he knew he'd spend the night, because the bed didn't feel right without Cassie beside him.

Funny, he thought, married less than a year, and already she's such a part of me. He glanced into the dining room, half expecting to see her there, kneeling beside the packing carton, smiling at him unsurely, as she had that day last month when they were moving in.

"Adam." Cassie spoke hesitantly as she unwrapped the last plate in the packing box. "We didn't make a mistake moving up here, did we? I mean, you will be happy here?"

Adam took the plate from her and added it to the stack on the kitchen counter. "I don't think I'll miss Los Angeles all that much," he reassured her.

"Well, I don't mean just Washington state. I mean this island. This little chunk of ground that I grew up on and thought I could leave and found out I couldn't."

"Honey, I told you. I like your little island in the Sound. And I'm sure commuting to work on the ferry will be a damn site easier on the nerves than commuting to work on the freeway." The hard part, he thought, is starting over again with a new company, but what the hell, I'm only 36, and a girl like Cassie is worth it.

She stood up, flung her arms around his neck and kissed him. "I love you," she said, leaning away from him a little so that she could look into his eyes. "I love you for agreeing to move here, and for having this house built, and for just being you."

The May sunshine coming through the uncurtained window behind him highlighted the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and the flecks of gold in her hazel eyes. He pulled her close and bent his head to kiss her.

"Hello! Anybody home?" A raspy voice accompanied the solid knock on the open front door.

"Oh." Cassie pulled away from Adam and looked toward the door. "That's George. I phoned him to come see us about the landscaping. He used to own a nursery. He's retired now, but he does some odd jobs to keep busy."

Introductions followed and Adam immediately liked the white-haired old man with the soft voice and faded blue eyes.

"Actually," Adam said, as the three walked out into the back yard, "I thought we had pretty much decided to leave the property natural." He shot a glance at Cassie.

"Well, yes." Cassie acknowledged his comment. "But the native growth has sort of taken over. George is just going to prune and thin. Pull the weeds. Things like that."

George paused to assess his surroundings. "This sure is a beautiful piece of property. In the Baxter family for years and years. Ol' Hank, the last of the Baxters, he died broke, but he wouldn't give up his land."

Adam nodded. "Lucky for us he was so committed. We got the place for the bid we offered the state."

It was evident some member of the Baxter family had once started to clear the eastern portion of the two acres. Clumps of sword ferns flourished in the partial shade of the dozen or so large firs and cedars that remained. Scotch broom waved branches loaded with brassy yellow flowers over the volunteer starts of laurels and holly trees that pushed through the grass here and there. At the far edge of the property, a patch of wild blackberries formed a ragged green hump.

Adam had lived in the city all his life, the neighborhood park his only contact with trees and flowers, and the thought that all this lush greenery now belonged to him was almost overwhelming. He wasn't sure if he wanted to give up any of it. He listened as Cassie and George discussed the fate of the various plants.

"The blackberries will have to be grubbed out, roots and all," George said, "or they'll come right back."

"Hey, no," Adam protested. "Not the blackberries. I can already taste the pies, the jams, the sauces...."

Cassie linked her arm with Adam's. "Wild blackberry vines are awful," she explained. "They just grow and grow and take over everything in their path." Her brows drew together in a small frown. "Although...the school bus used to come by here and this particular patch has been about the same for as long as I can remember."

George nodded. "Once in a great while, happens that way. Maybe some chemical element missing in the soil. But you can bet, once you start waterin' and fertilizin' the other plants, those wild blackberries will start takin' over. Really, Mr. Marshall, it'd be best to get rid of them and plant blueberries. They're much nicer plants, lotsa berries, no stickers, pretty foliage in the fall."

Adam looked at the straggly thicket, musing. "Wild blackberry jam is really expensive. Anyway, it doesn't seem smart to take out those bushes and plant others. Can't you just prune the blackberries a little bit?"

The laugh lines crinkled around George's eyes. He glanced at Cassie, who was smiling. "Okay, Mr. Marshall," George said. "I'll prune the blackberries for you this year. But I'll bet by next year, you'll want 'em grubbed out."

On Monday, Adam began his new job in Seattle, and George began beautifying the property surrounding the Marshall house. He started with the front yard, and by Thursday had progressed through the side yards and was working on the back. He knew his business, and the area around the house was becoming park-like, a true haven of refuge for Adam after the day's work.

When he came home on Friday evening, thankful the first stressful week was over, he noticed no new work had been done that day. He was annoyed at himself for feeling a twinge of disappointment. George was an old man who had worked hard for four days; he was entitled to take a long weekend.

"George has sure done wonders with this yard," Cassie remarked as she and Adam sat drinking after-dinner coffee on the rear deck. "I'm afraid he might have over-done, though. He called this morning and said he wasn't feeling well." She took a sip of coffee. "He got a deep scratch yesterday," she added absently. "Berry vine whipped around and caught him right across his back. I put some antiseptic on it." She looked across the yard at the half-trimmed mass of vines. "The thorns on that thing are huge and tough as nails. Went right through his denim coveralls." She looked back at Adam and smiled. "I think George is right about the blueberries."

The following Monday, George was still feeling ill, and on Tuesday, his doctor recommended he be hospitalized. "They don't know what's wrong with him," Cassie told Adam at dinner that evening. "I talked to his wife Thelma this afternoon. She took George to Bremerton first and they did some tests on him there, then sent him to the University of Washington hospital. They think it's some kind of insect bite."

"Insect bite!" Adam's voice reflected his concern. "Hey, I don't want you working out in the yard, then."

Cassie laughed. "You're over-reacting. There are always bugs around. You've never had a yard to tend."

"No, but I've heard about black widow spiders, and fiddlebacks and such." He reached across the table and took her hand. "I mean it, Cassie. If George got bit by something, it probably happened right here on this property. So you just forget the yard work for now. Okay?"

Adam went to visit George at the hospital the next day. Although it was possible that he could have been bitten while working elsewhere, Adam still felt a certain responsibility, and besides, he really cared about the old man.

A plump, gray-haired lady, whom Adam surmised to be Thelma, was seated at George's bedside. She looked up as Adam approached and introduced himself. Her face was drawn, her eyes red-rimmed.

"Oh, Mr. Marshall, I'm so glad you came today," she said. "The doctors have decided it isn't an insect bite. Now they think it's some kind of poison that got into his system through that scratch on his back. The EPA people are on their way to your place to check for toxic chemicals."

Adam frowned. "We haven't used any chemicals on the property, but of course the previous owners might have."

Thelma shook her head. "Hank Baxter never did anything with that land. His father died trying to clear it and after that Hank just let it sit. It was on his mind, though, right there at the last. For some reason, he was disturbed about not having any children to leave his property to."

At Adam's questioning look, she explained. "I volunteer at the nursing home. I was there the day Hank died." As if the memory triggered even more anxiety about her husband, she reached out and took George's hand.

In response, he groaned and without actually wakening, turned on his side to face toward her. The movement separated the back opening of his hospital gown, revealing a broad bandage. Although the actual scratch was covered, the flesh on each side of the dressing was puckered and discolored an ugly purplish-gray.

Adam felt sick and turned away. He saw the tears blurring Thelma's eyes and forced an optimistic tone into his voice. "Once they know what poison it is, they'll find an antidote. George will be up and around again in no time."

Thelma wiped her eyes and sighed heavily. After a moment she said, "Cassie was in earlier. She brought a vase of beautiful peonies, but the doctors thought we shouldn't keep them in the room." Her eyes misted again. "No matter. George isn't aware of anything right now, anyway."

Adam laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "When he feels better, we'll bring some more." He moved toward the door. "I'd better give Cassie a call." He glanced back at Thelma, and because he didn't know what else to say, he said simply, "I'll stop by again tomorrow."

Cassie answered the telephone on the second ring, and he informed her of the doctors' latest diagnosis and their request for the toxic chemical testing.

"Yes, I know," Cassie replied. "I just came in from outside. They're here right now. They look like a bunch of space-walkers out there in our yard, taking samples of everything. I can't imagine what they expect to find."

She repeated that comment as she and Adam sat down to dinner that evening. "I mean, you know how much I hate wild blackberries. They may smother vacant summer cabins and devour abandoned vehicles, but they don't attack people."

"Cassie, you said yourself those particular vines haven't grown like they usually do. Someone may have sprayed a herbicide on those berries, or maybe the vines have absorbed something through the soil. George is extremely ill, and I, for one, am glad someone's checking out every possibility."

Cassie nodded. "Yes, you're right, of course." She reached across the table and took hold of his hand. "I just don't want to believe that our property is contaminated. I hate to think that maybe it's because of us that George is so sick." She looked away from Adam and stared out the window, her eyes misting. "He's just got to get well."

Adam attributed Cassie's restless night to her state of mind, but in the morning, when she awoke flushed and feverish, he became alarmed. Ignoring his pleas that she stay in bed, she sat up, her feet searching for her slippers, and he saw the broken red line around her left ankle.

He knelt to get a closer look at the wound. "What's this?" His voice was unduly sharp -- he felt a quickening of his pulse and a churning in his stomach because he knew before she spoke what the answer would be.

"A scratch from a berry vine." Her voice was small and apologetic, like that of a child caught being naughty.

"Cassie, I expressly asked you not to work in the yard. Why did you go and do it?"

"Well, when I visited George yesterday, Thelma told me the doctors had pretty much ruled out insect bite as a diagnosis. I was restless when I got home and it was such a pretty day, I felt like I wanted to get out and do something. That was before the environmental guys came."

Adam examined the scratch. The wound looked superficial, but the flesh around it was already taking on a purple-gray color and puckery texture. He looked up at her. "Why didn't you tell me about this last night?"

"I knew you'd be mad."

He raised up on his knees and kissed her. Her lips felt hot and dry. She put her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against his. "Adam, I really don't feel very well. Maybe you should call Dr. Wallace."

News of George's puzzling affliction had already circulated among members of the island's medical profession. Dr. Wallace made arrangements at once for Cassie's transportation to the University of Washington hospital. She was already slipping in and out of consciousness as Adam rode with her in the aid car on the ferry. All he could think of during that ride and the time it took to get her checked in, was how glad he was that George had been stricken first and given the doctors some preliminary experience. Guilt for those thoughts niggled at him as he waited impatiently for the doctors to make their morning rounds.

The ER team had done as much for Cassie as they could, and Dr. Wallace had arranged to meet with the physicians who were working on George's case. Adam paced the room, listening to Cassie's breathing becoming more and more labored, seeing the feverish flush fading to a dusky gray.

Cassie's doctor returned, and even as he entered the room, Adam could tell by the man's demeanor that the news was not favorable. The physician hesitated just inside the doorway and signalled for Adam to join him.

"There haven't been any new developments," Dr. Wallace said. "Some of the specimen test results are back, but they don't show anything toxic. The lab is still working on some cultures -- they take a little while. So far, nothing."

"What about George? Has he shown any improvement from the medication they've been giving him?"

Dr. Wallace looked down at the floor for a moment, then raised his gaze to meet Adam's. "George died early this morning. We did all we could, but his heart just couldn't take the stress."

Adam felt a heaviness press down on his body. "Oh, God," he breathed. He turned toward Cassie, his thoughts tumbling. That couldn't happen to her. She was young and strong. She could fight off the poison. Or whatever was on the vines. Why in God's name had he insisted on keeping those damned wild blackberries? He crossed the room, sank down on the chair beside her bed, and buried his face against her.

As the week progressed, Adam spent the long days and nights beside Cassie's bed, holding her hand so that she would be sure to know he was there, leaping up to talk to her during the brief moments when she was semi-conscious. The tests went on; the results continued to show nothing.

Dr. Wallace finally convinced him he needed to get away from the hospital for a while, and assured him he would be contacted at once if there was any change in Cassie's condition. When he still hesitated, the doctor promised use of his private boat if Adam needed to cross the Sound at a time when the ferries were not in service. Exhausted, he caught the next ferry on the Seattle-Bainbridge run.

Adam drank the last swallow of ale, then pushed himself out of the chair and went to the kitchen to get another. Through the kitchen window, he saw the moon, well above the horizon now, and becoming whiter as it rose higher. Its pale light gave an unreal perspective to the back yard. The blackberry thicket seemed larger and closer than it was; its arching branches dipped and swayed in a gentle breeze.

He took the drink back to the living room, telephoned the hospital again and received the same message: No change. He took several long drinks, then gradually became aware his stomach hurt, and remembered he hadn't eaten for hours.

Returning to the kitchen, he reached for the switch to snap on the light and stopped in mid-reach, frowning. He looked out at the back yard, now well-lighted by the full moon. Snaking vines from the blackberry thicket covered half the distance to the house.

He shook his head. Psychological, he thought. I'm imagining the damned vines are growing because I feel like it's my fault George is dead and Cassie is sick. He didn't feel hungry any more. He went back to the living room and the half-empty bottle of ale.

Leaning his head back on the chair, he closed his eyes. He needed sleep. Getting exhausted wouldn't help Cassie any.

The house was quiet, except for some small scratchy sounds -- the wind blowing the tips of branches against a window somewhere. The noise was insistent and irritating, preventing sleep. He flung himself angrily out of the chair and went in search of the source.

The kitchen. Something was rubbing across the kitchen window. He leaned forward over the sink to look out, and recoiled in disbelief as he recognized what it was. Blackberry vines, masses of them, entangled, writhing, clawing at the window pane. He sagged back against the refrigerator, his mind reeling.

This isn't happening, he thought. It's worry, fatigue, too many ales on a empty stomach. Yet, even as he tried to rationalize them away, the vines began nudging at the window casing, thrusting their tips through the crack between the wood and the window frame. Panic seized him.

He jerked open the cutlery drawer, pulled out the largest knife and whacked at the vines as they pried through the cracks. The severed tips lay writhing on the counter top, oozing purple-gray matter. Other vines immediately pushed in, raising the window enough that the larger branches could now force their way through. Adam heard them rasping across the window sill and smelled their cloying too-green scent.

In a mad frenzy, he chopped at the snaking limbs. They reached for him through the now open window, gouged his flesh with claw-like thorns, looped around his flailing arms, slid up his shoulders to encircle his neck.

Heart thundering, he fought the web of vines and slashed savagely wherever he could reach. But his arm movements were restricted and he felt a stinging pain on his left wrist. Looking down, he saw the blood gushing from a wound he had inflicted on himself. He cried out in terror, dropped the knife and tried to stem the flow of blood with his right hand.

"Oh, God, no!" he cried. He was going to die here and no one would know why. They would think he cut his wrist because of remorse. "Oh, Cassie, Cassie," he sobbed.

Feeling his strength ebbing, he leaned over the sink and looked at the snarl of vines and leaves spreading through the window and across the kitchen counter. "All right, then, take me," he babbled. "But not Cassie. She didn't mean to harm you. Just give me time to write her a note. Let me tell her to leave you alone."

For a few moments, the vines were curiously still -- no longer thrashing around him. Then they began to move again and Adam steeled himself for the gouging that would bring. Instead, as they uncoiled from his arms and body, and the leaves slid over the previously inflicted scratches, the wounds felt soothed. Gently but firmly, several small vines pried his fingers from his slashed wrist, and wrapped themselves around the injury. The bleeding stopped at once, and the pain disappeared. Adam stared in open-mouthed wonder as the slender limbs uncurled, revealing a line of scar tissue where the wound had been.

The vines withdrew through the open window, slipped across the moonlit lawn and gathered themselves into a thicket, as Adam had first seen them. He leaned against the counter for several moments, gulping in great mouthfuls of the fresh cool evening air. Then he turned and walked unsteadily into the living room, where he collapsed into the recliner and reached for the telephone.

"Well, Mr. Marshall, I was just going to call you," the doctor's voice came over the line. "I went in to check on your wife a few minutes ago. She's much improved. Whatever it was, she's fought it off. I think she'll be okay."

Adam thought he mumbled something appropriate into the phone before replacing the receiver. He stared at the thin white line across his left wrist for a long time, thinking, wondering. Finally, knowing he had to find out, he pushed himself out of the chair and went to the kitchen.

He paused in the doorway, seeing nothing unusual, but hesitant to allow relief to claim him. The window was still open, the moonlight slanting through. He moved toward the counter, reached out and wiped one hand across it. With a strangled cry, he recoiled, feeling the sticky wetness of the severed vine remnants clinging to his hand.

He looked out the window at the huddle of wild blackberries, crouched there in the moonlight. He and Cassie had awakened their incredible dormant power. There was no hope of getting rid of them. Their roots went down to Hell and whatever he did, the vines would grow back.

Slowly, the awful realization came to him -- he was their prisoner. In good conscience, he could never sell this piece of ground to someone else, and subject them to such suffering and anguish, and possible death. For the rest of his life, he was committed to this land. He and Cassie, and their children and their children's children, the unwilling keepers of the terrible secret. Until their family line died out, as the Baxter family had.

And then...


Author Bio

Ms. Frances Sonnabend was born in Portland, Oregon, but she has lived most of her life in Washington state. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, including humerous epic poems for office parties/functions and humerous memo/reminders. She's only started submitting for publication in recent years.
Her hobbies are reading, writing, sightseeing, and photography. Her favorite fiction authors are Mary Stewart, Stephen R. Lawhead, Cary James, Janny Wurts and David Eddings. She also reads extensively in non-fiction areas concerning medieval times, especially anything about Great Britain.
She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and her short story/novel excerpts have placed in the top ten in their respective categories for five consecutive years in the PNWC contests.



"Wild Blackberries" Copyright © 1998 Frances Sonnabend. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
This page last updated 7-12-98.
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