How the Blueberries Grow

Cecilia Kennedy

Royal blue, round clusters cling ripe and full to stems in verdant fields.  Children gobble their prizes straight from the bush while grandparents, parents, and neighbors fill metal pails to the brim with the best Terrace Falls Farm Blueberries.  After a while, the stains are hard to wash away. They stick to fingers and faces, turning them purple as the pigment oxidizes.  One by one, Farmer Higley weighs the buckets—his hands worn rough by so much pruning, care, and harvesting.  Even without the regulars who come by each year to pick from the fields, there is always the harvest, which has Farmer Higley concerned . . .

He waits by the register, smiling at each patron.

“These goin’ into pies this year, Beverly?” he asks.

“At least three.  I can make at least three with what I’ve got here.  I swear by these berries, I do.  They’ve won a prize every year at the fair.”

“Back again?” he asks Clarence, who works for the post office.

“Yeah, Margie won’t let me go past this place on my days off without picking a bucket or two.  I tell you. . . they’re gone in about a week.  Addictive, I tell you.”

“Well, I hear they’re good for you—real healthy and all that.”

“I suppose,” Clarence says.  “Mostly, we just eat ‘em.”

After a while, the faces and stories run together on long days of weighing buckets, escorting customers through fields, and gathering emails.  Farmer Higley doesn’t believe in “email marketing campaigns,” but over the years, he’s been able to credit his farm’s success with the gathering of emails.  They’re crucial for the harvest.  Most people don’t mind giving him an address. He hates asking, but he has to these days.  When he tells them they just get one newsletter a year and a coupon for the first few weeks that he’s open for business each year, they decide it’s worth giving up a little information.

Every once in a while though, someone stands out—usually an out-of-towner—someone who’s just shown up for the novelty of picking berries—someone who’s never done it before and will never do it again.  Someone who’s just passing through. And, if that person just happens to pick over 10 pounds of berries, in less than two hours, well then, Farmer Higley wants more than that person’s email.  This type of customer is vital to his business.

#

“GET THAT BUCKET THERE.  BUCKET?  SEE?”  Farmer Higley shouts in the moonlight.

“Sí,” Daniel replies.

“No! Not ‘sí.’ See! Ah!  Damn it!  How come you come here if you can’t learn English?”

Daniel just watches Farmer Higley.  He can’t understand why he’s so upset.  He’s here. He showed up.  He knows what to do.  He’s watched the others. Why is he showing him a bucket?

Daniel picks up the bucket and begins to pick berries from the bushes. He works quickly and nimbly—the way a fifteen-year-old moves if he could play sports or pass the time with friends.  Each berry is at once, a precious gem and a distraction.  At first, the work is hard, but one grows accustomed.  Growing accustomed is progress in a place where fields and skies are fences.

“Well, would you look at that?  You know what to do.  Have at it!”  Farmer Higley says as he walks back to his house, with the table that’s set for dinner.  In the fields, the workers set up makeshift shelters, hidden from the road.

Daniel stays and works, filling bucket after bucket.  He works by the pound, not the hour.  Off in the distance, a wild, rare, lone cougar spots his prey.  He’s been waiting all day. Daniel reaches up to pick a few more clusters between the branches—letting them separate between his fingers.  He has his own system and strategy by now.  In a flash, the moon goes black as something heavy, alive, and vicious tears at Daniel’s back and neck.  His instinct is to fight—and fight hard—but he’s been at work for several hours now—loaded down by the weight of the fields—the buckets—the moving—the constant moving.  No one is immune to the cries and the terrible, terrible screams—both human and animal—except for Farmer Higley, who sleeps comfortably far from the fields.  In the morning, Daniel is gone—leaving his family to mourn—and seek solace in a curandera—a weaver of spells and justice.

#

“I just don’t know how you did it.  I remember only ten years ago, looking at these dead, empty fields—not knowing if you’d ever have the blueberry bushes back again, but you’ve done it.  And they’re even better than before,” Lucy tells Farmer Higley as he weighs the 3-pound bucket she’s filled.

“Well, you know, just a lot of hard work, and prayers,” Farmer Higley replies.

“Amen to that.  God will provide.  You are living proof of that!”

Farmer Higley nods his head, but he knows better.  He knows he owes his success to a much harder, uglier truth than anyone could ever imagine.

#

Ten Years Earlier

On his field, Farmer Higley stands, surveying the crops that died mysteriously.  He’s let all the migrants go.  He’s contracted the Extension Service.  They tell him that by all rights, his berries should grow.  They don’t understand why they won’t grow.  He could move, he supposes, but he still owes too much on the land. So he just sits right there in the dirt with his head in his hands—staring at the ground.  Two small feet, wrapped in thin, black ballerina type slippers walk right up to him and stop.

“Señor Higley,” Concha begins.

Farmer Higley looks up.  He doesn’t recognize her.

“There’s no work.  Go away.”

“Oh, I’m not looking for work,” she says. “I’m looking for you.”

“For me? Why?”

“It’s on your fields, just a few months ago, a young man died.  His family came to visit me.”

“Died! I don’t know of anyone who died on my watch!”

“I figured you wouldn’t, so I brought you his picture, right here,” she says, handing him a photo of Daniel.

Farmer Higley studies it carefully.

“I vaguely remember the boy.  Came late one evening.  Never saw him again. Figured he just left. Work was too hard.”

“His name was Daniel and he died while you slept soundly.”

“What do you want from me?  I have nothing.  You can sue me if you want, but there’s nothing here.”

“Oh, I don’t want your money, Mr. Higley.  I want something far more precious.”

“What? My life?  Take it!  I’ve got nothing now!”

“No.  You’ll live.  What I want is your dignity.”

“My dignity?”

“Yes.  When Daniel died, his family asked me to curse your fields, which I did. Because of me, nothing grows here and it won’t. Ever.  Unless you give back to the earth something in return.  In order to gain a harvest, you have to gather a harvest.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Daniel was a hard worker.  His body was never found, but he picked at least 10-20 pounds of berries the night he died—in a very short amount of time.  It’s assumed that a large animal charged at him and killed him.  You must find someone who works as hard as he does.”

“I’m not hiring!  There’s no work here!”

“To begin, you could find one healthy male and bring him here to this field at midnight.  I’ll tell you what to do next.”

“Why? There’s no work!  Don’t you understand? There’s no work!”

“There will be, once you find him. Do as I say and you will have the blueberry bushes back in great abundance.”

Though Farmer Higley truly believes Concha is insane, he’s determined to get his livelihood back, so he goes into town to have a cup of coffee at the local diner. There, sitting at the counter, is a young man in his early 20s who seems sturdy and strong enough to fit Concha’s description.

“You new to the area?”  Farmer Higley asks the young man.

“Sort of.  I don’t really live here.  I’m a college student at Pines University.  I take classes and then I head back east.”

“That’s an expensive school.”

“Yeah, well, my parents foot the bill.  They send me here because it’s in the middle of nowhere.  I couldn’t get into much trouble.  That’s what they figure anyway.”

“So, you wouldn’t be looking for a job or anything.”

“Not really, but I could always use some beer money.”

“Well, I may be able to help with that.  I own a blueberry farm.  You could pick some blueberries and earn some extra cash.”

“Sounds easy enough. I could probably do that.”

“You probably could.  The thing is . . . I can’t show you the fields right now. Here’s the address.  I have to meet you at the fields tonight at midnight.”

“Midnight? Sounds kind of weird.”

“Do you know much about farming?”

“No. Not really.”

“Well, most people think we just work during the day, but we work at night too. That’s sometimes when the best work gets done.  You won’t have to pick blueberries at night, but if you can spot ‘em at midnight, you’d be able to do one heck of a job during the day.”

“So, this is a test?”

“Sort of. But I’m sure you’ll pass.”

“Okay. Midnight then.”

#

Silver moonlight floods the dry, parched earth of what was once Farmer Higley’s prized blueberry bushes.  Right in the middle of the fields, Concha waits with a surgeon’s scalpel.

“Did you find a worthy male?” she asks.

“Yeah. I found someone.  He’s coming here tonight.  Now what?”

“When he arrives, we’ll get the bushes blooming again.”

“Just like that?  Overnight?”

“Yes.”

The sound of a car’s engine nears closer.  The car pulls to a stop and a young man gets out—dressed in a sports jacket and wearing Dockers.

“So, where are the blueberry bushes?”  he asks.

“Concha here says she’s going to make them appear with your help,” Farmer Higley replies.

“Okay, now that sounds really weird.”

“Let me just have a word privately with Concha and we’ll be right back.”

Concha and Farmer Higley walk a few paces back toward the farmhouse.  Concha hands him the scalpel and two small pills.

“The first harvest is yours to gather.  We’ll need an organ. Tonight, you’ll perform an organ harvest.”

“An organ?”

“Not just any organ.  A lung.”

“I’m supposed to remove a lung from that young man over there?”

“Yes.  Then, it gets placed into the ground and the berries will grow.  When Daniel died—without so much as consolation or remorse from you—all the air in this world that his parents ever breathed was drawn back down into the earth—far, far below the ground on which we walk.  Trees, grass, fields, and ripe precious berries will not grow without air.  That is why, once the bushes rebound after this first offering, you must perform monthly offerings—or lose everything again.”

Farmer Higley can’t believe what he hears.

“It will work, you know,” Concha says.  “Just watch.”

She bends down close to the ground and breathes onto a tiny speck of dirt.  Farmer Higley also bends down close, with a flashlight, to watch.  Before his very eyes, a small, green stem pokes its way up above the ground.

“It just needs air. Human air.  I don’t have enough, though and neither do you.  A harvest of lungs is required.”

Farmer Higley is convinced, but disgusted by what he has to do.  Nevertheless, he returns to the farmhouse for a beer. He mixes the pills inside and meets the young man in the fields.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“Ah, just something to get you started on your beer allowance. It’s on the house.”

“Thanks!  I wasn’t expecting to be drinking on the job!”

“The job don’t pay much, so I have to provide some perks.”

“Well, alright!” the young man replies as he takes his first sip.  He takes another as he discloses his plans. He downs a few more sips as he talks about his parents’ hopes and dreams, which don’t quite match his plans.  Then, he waves his hand out toward the fields, as if he’s about to say something important, but he can’t finish his sentence.  He’s fallen, with a thud, to the ground.

Farmer Higley bends over the body, knowing a scalpel won’t be enough to do the job.  He’ll have to saw through bone as well. So, he goes back to his tool shed to find a small hand saw and a couple of drag hooks.  Then, he kneels down by the body and begins to work. Somehow, he identifies the arch that runs just below the left breast.  Working with a flashlight, he inserts the scalpel and cuts right under the breast. The knife slides through easily—making one large, deep gash.  Thin pieces of yellow fat unfurl before him and he nearly doubles over from nausea more than a few times.  He grimaces as he continues to slice away at the thick tissue—peeling it away in ribbons and layers—right down to a vainy, purplish layer, just above the bone.  The next cut he can still make with the scalpel, but for the bone, he’ll need the saw.  It’s the hardest, most humiliating work he’s ever had to do: slicing apart a human so the blueberries can grow.  It takes great strength to chip away at the bone.  He closes his lips tightly so he won’t swallow chunks of flesh and blood.  After making a deep, lateral slit through the bone, he uses the drag hooks to widen and split apart the structure.  At last, he sees the lung—still warm—and somewhat gray with undertones of blue—large and thick and full of blood.  He has to run his scalpel under there to pry it loose, which is no easy task, either.  Thick, stretchy strands of tissue must also be cut in order to get the lung out.  After at least an hour’s work he holds a rubbery, fresh, plump lung in his hand.  He retches once or twice and then finds a shovel.  The wind picks up on the fields and he can hear Concha’s cackles, riding on the ripples of air.

#

Ten years later, Farmer Higley doesn’t know which is more humiliating:  gathering out-of-town emails or actually harvesting the lungs made possible by his marketing efforts.  It’s all such filthy, terrible, unnatural work.  If he looks closely at the clusters at midnight, by the light of a flashlight, he swears he sees them pulsing with life.  He crushes a berry or two between his fingers and studies the fleshy insides—etched ever so slightly with oxygen-rich veins that appear to inhale and exhale in time with his own breath.

 

***

Cecilia Kennedy earned a PhD in Spanish literature from Ohio State University. Her speculative fiction works have appeared in Theme of Absence and Gathering Storm Literary Magazine.  She lives in the Greater Seattle area with her family and details her “scary” attempts at DIY projects in her blog, “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.”  https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/