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there yet?” Davy asked for the fifth time in half an hour.
Mom and Dad answered again from the front seat of the ten-year-old DeSoto.
twerp.” Meg poked her little brother to break up the otherwise boring trip.
hit me,” Davy whined.
“I did not.” Meg figured that was almost true
because Davy’s thick wool sweater protected him from most things.
yourselves back there...” Mom half-turned her head.
turn this car around and take us home,” Dad added. In the rearview mirror, his
eyebrows sank into a dark V like the wings of a circling hawk.
me.” Meg sulked in her corner of the back seat. Staring out the window, she
wished she were with her friend Denise, listening to 45s in her room or testing
makeup samples at Reed’s 5 & 10, instead of listening to Davy’s fussing and
putting up with this stupid family outing. “Why do I have to go cranberry picking anyway? You guys can pick without
this is a family outing and you’re
part of the family,” Mom said, pausing to check the map. “Besides, it will be
fun. We’ve always had a good time picking before.”
true, Meg had to admit. Dozens of “U-Pick-It” farms patchworked the county, so
each season brought a family outing or two: strawberries in the spring,
blueberries and tomatoes in the summer, apples and pumpkins in the fall. Meg
liked these trips well enough, especially on sunny days when she could pluck
the ripest blueberries, pop them in her mouth, and savor each sensation.
she’d notice their warmth and texture, full, round, and smooth. Then, she’d
take that first gentle bite, and the sun-sweetened juice would burst in her
mouth, making her tremble with delight. Best of all, no one cared how many you
ate. The farmers charged per person, so whatever you ate or took home was up to
you. Dad said the outings built character; he didn’t mind if the kids ate while
they picked. And Mom didn’t care either, as long as they got enough fruit for
her canning and pie baking.
was blueberry season, and this was cranberry season. Instead of bright warm
days of endless blue sky, chilling gray days smothered the sun with low clouds.
And today was particularly drizzly and blustery. All the better to build your
character, Meg thought glumly.
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here,” Mom announced. The DeSoto jounced down a potholed road, distinguished
only by a battered sign for Grigg’s Farm. A slightly newer hand-painted sign
leaned against it, with “U-PIK CRANberries” lettered in dingy red.
At a small
booth by the farm’s gate, Dad got out of the car and talked with a stalk of a
man who wore mud-spattered overalls, a frayed plaid shirt, and a faded gray
cap. His thin face was deeply lined and craggy, like the scrub pines
surrounding the farm.
paying and getting instructions, Dad got back in the car, beaming. “That Mr.
Grigg. What a character! He’s going to meet us at the bog and set us up. He
says we have it to ourselves so far, so we should be able to pick a ton of
Meg murmured. From the rear window, she saw Grigg draw back his lips in a
gap-toothed smile. Dad steered the car around the potholes, shrinking the old
man into the distance. Then he turned onto a raised dirt trail not much wider
than the car.
At the end of the trail, they
tumbled out of the car, glad to stretch after the long drive through the Pine
Barrens. Dad immediately started pulling work clothes out of the trunk: his
best hip waders, which he usually used for surf fishing; his spare waders for
Mom; and raincoats, hats, and galoshes for Meg and Davy. Then they all put on
their waterproof gear.
Mom’s oversized waders bulged and
flapped under the weight of the excess rubber. Over her hair, she tied a red
scarf with small white polka dots. The dainty scarf made the ungainly waders
look even more ridiculous.
“Wow, Mom, you really know how to
make a fashion statement,” Meg teased.
Mom took a mock runway turn. “Oh,
yes. It’s all the rage in the bogs of Paris this season.” With her hands on her
hips and her back arched, the waders squeaked and billowed like a circus
clown’s pants. Meg and Davy giggled so hard they had to sit down.
Just then, Grigg arrived in
his battered Ford pickup. He ratcheted himself out of the driver’s seat and
limped over to the group. His trailing foot dragged across the loose gravel,
silencing the laughter instantly. Mom quickly flattened her waders; Meg and
Davy scrambled to their feet.
“Mr. Grigg,” Dad said, “this is my
wife Fran and our kids Megan and Davy.”
Grigg looked them over one by one,
and touched the bill of his cap in greeting. “Ever pick cranberries before?”
“No,” Dad said. “But we’ve picked
blueberries and other fruit.”
Grigg sucked on his cheeks, making
his thin face even more skeletal. “Cranberries don’t pick like blueberries.
He hobbled a few yards up the
trail; the family followed in a solemn procession. On each side of the trail,
fields had been flooded for the harvest. “I’m experimentin’ with these fields.
Had ’em bottom-leveled last year.” According to Grigg, the bogs were dry and
sandy most of the year and filled with cranberry bushes. When the berries
became ripe, his crews flooded the fields and walked through them, wearing
waders and carrying beaters that knocked the berries off the submerged bushes.
“Cranberries are part hollow,” Grigg said. “When they rise to the top, we
corral ’em with floatin’ booms. Then we push ’em into the conveyor for
there?” Meg pointed to a distant field that had been beaten but not yet
harvested. The corralled berries glowed like rubies against the bog’s dark
will be easy. We’ll just push the berries into some bushel baskets.” Meg tickled
Megan.” Grigg’s tone stopped her wiggling fingers. “That’s my commercial
harvest. You’ll be workin’ the older fields up here.” He limped back past the
parked vehicles. Davy elbowed Meg in the ribs.
crossed over his chest, Grigg surveyed a dark pond heavy with tangled
undergrowth. “This field is still pretty near the way God made it. The bed’s
uneven and deep, sand over marsh, with an old variety of stock. ’Course, we had
to flood it to keep the frost off the berries.”
berries in there?” Davy looked worried.
Master Davy.” Grigg’s mouth twisted into a grin. “Still on the bushes.”
“So how do
we get them?” Meg asked.
“The way we
did years ago.” Grigg lurched over to his pickup and rummaged through its bed.
“Look at this place, Dad. We won’t get any cranberries here.”
will. We’ll just do it the old-fashioned way. It’ll be fun,” Dad said.
Davy whimpered. Yeah right, Meg thought. A damp bog on a cold day with a whiney
brother. Big fun.
pulled out a crate of hand scoops. Each wooden scoop was shaped like a small
box, with long metal fingers on one end to pull the berries off the branches
and a screen on the other end to drain the water. Grigg showed them how to
scoop the berries, drain off the water, and dump them into half-bushel baskets.
and Davy had only galoshes, Grigg positioned them at the bog’s shallow edge and
put their baskets on the bank. He stationed Mom and Dad in the deeper areas and
floated their baskets inside old inner tubes nearby. After supervising for a
few minutes, he said, “I’ve got to finish harvestin’ that front field. You
folks be alright now?”
said. “We’ve got the hang of it.”
leaned down toward Meg and Davy and raised a bony finger. “Now don’t you
young’uns go wanderin’ any deeper than your ankles. There’s some mighty deep
bog holes out there. And they’ll suck you right in.” He looked both children in
the eyes, serious as sin, and then limped to his truck. Over his shoulder, he
repeated, “Remember. No deeper than your ankles.”
an anxious glance toward Mom and Dad, who were almost screened from sight by a
clump of scraggly bushes. In water up to their thighs, both adults were already
scooping berries. “Don’t worry,” Meg said. “They’re a lot bigger than us, and
they swim like fish.” She tossed a stray berry at her brother.
Davy dodged the berry and made a farting noise. “Ha-ha. You missed.”
“I was just
testing for distance.”
For more than
half an hour, Meg threw herself into cranberry picking. She spurred herself on
with one thought: The sooner we get done, the sooner I can get home and call
Denise. With the gusts getting stronger and the temperature dropping, getting
home was sounding better than ever. She gathered, drained, and deposited scoop
after scoop into her basket. Soon her wet hands were aching from the cold, and
the wind was whipping across her face, chapping her skin.
Occasionally, long thin branches of
submerged bushes brushed against her boots, making the hair on her arms stand
up. They pulled her imagination to the bottom of the bog, even though the
thought of it made her shiver. She pushed herself to focus on scooping and
draining, scooping and draining.
Tired and cold, Meg straightened
the haul in her basket, which was a little over half full. She decided she
needed a break from the punishment her family called an outing. “Hey, Davy,”
she called. “How much do you have?”
trudged through the dark water. He hadn’t quite grown into his yellow slicker
and rain hat. They floated on him, making him look like an old sea captain who
had shrunken inside his foul-weather gear. He dumped a small scoop into his
basket and weighed his answer like a judge. “About half a basket.”
Let me see.” Meg dragged her basket over to Davy’s. “Well, I’ll be, Master
Davy,” she said, imitating Grigg’s piney accent. “You sure got yourself a heap
o’ berries there. You got ’most as many as Miss Megan here.” When Davy grinned
at her, Meg saw her chance for some fun. “Hey, did you ever eat a cranberry
raw?” She tried to sound innocent.
They’re great raw.” Meg peered into
her basket. “You know, I would’ve had a lot more by now if I hadn’t eaten so many.”
She tipped her basket toward Davy to show him.
believe you.” Davy shook his head, the too-large hat sliding from side to side.
Watch me.” Meg picked a fat red berry from her basket. “Ooh, this looks like a
juicy one.” She put it to her mouth, but quickly palmed it while pretending to
chew and swallow. “Mm-mm good.” Meg smiled. “I think these are even better than blueberries.” She paused to
let that sink in. “They taste like blueberries, only redder and sweeter.”
frowned and studied his basket. “Like blueberries?” He carefully selected a
large scarlet berry to test.
sugar.” Meg held her breath.
the cranberry into his mouth and chewed. In a second, his face contorted.
“Aaarrrgh!” He spat out the bitter fruit, reached into his basket, and threw a
fistful of berries at Meg.
She ducked and laughed. “What’s the
matter? Did you get a bad one?” Meg teased, lobbing a handful of her own at her
Davy coughed and spat again, his
face turning red. “Leave me alone,” he shouted, hurling another bunch of
berries at her.
“Here, try some more,” Meg threw
the contents of her bucket at him.
Under the crimson hail, Davy
reached down and grabbed a handful of bog mud. “I hate you!” He pitched the mud
as hard as he could.
The mud slapped the side of Meg’s
head, splattering across her eyes. “You jerk!” she shrieked, charging toward
him blindly. Meg hoped to land a good punch, but rammed into Davy instead. She
heard his yell and a loud splash.
Quickly, Meg wiped the mud out of
her eyes and spotted Davy’s hat floating about 20 yards out like a small yellow
boat lost in a vast dark sea. Oh no, she thought, the bog’s got him!
she slipped out of her boots and dove into the water, aiming for just below the
floating hat. Her muscles tensed in the chilly water. But she forced herself to
kick hard. She surfaced near the hat, shouting Davy’s name.
Again she dove, willing
herself to keep her eyes open in the cold, dark water. Dead black leaves and
broken twigs floated between the submerged bushes, making it difficult to see.
She groped among the branches, hoping to grab Davy’s arm or collar or anything.
Her frantic kicks stirred up sediment from the bottom of the bog.
Meg shot to
the surface for a breath of air. Quickly, she dove down again. Panic climbed up
her spine toward her throat. Where is he? She spun underwater to check in all
directions. The bog remained silent.
resurfaced, gasping for breath. Murky water sprayed from her nose and mouth.
“Davy!” she called. Wiping sediment from her eyes with one hand, she paddled
feverishly with the other.
Suddenly, Dad’s strong arms lifted
her out of the water. Meg coughed a leaf away from her lips. “The bog hole’s
got him!” she wailed, wildly scanning the water’s surface. Desperate now to
find Davy, she twisted in her father’s arms, trying to dive again.
right,” Dad said. “He’s OK.”
splash,…” Meg spluttered.
honey.” Dad pushed back the muddy hair that clung to her face and picked a
clump of leaves off her shoulder. “As soon as Mom heard you two squabbling, she
headed over. She grabbed Davy before he got into trouble.”
“But his hat…I thought he was in
deep…” Confused and relieved, Meg began to cry softly.
“The wind must have lifted the hat
right off his head.”
only fell in shallow water. Of course, he got pretty wet.” Her father
suppressed a grin. “But not as wet as you.”
Dad set Meg
down at the water’s edge. “Rest here a minute. I’ll get your boots and the
scoops and baskets, and we’ll go home.” He waded back into the bog.
over a towel and returned to the car to crank up its heater. While Meg was
drying off, Davy sat next to her. “You thought you were gonna save me from a
bog hole?” He laughed like this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
twerp.” Meg poked him in the side and grabbed his arm. Then strangely, she
didn’t want to let him go.