Blackberry juice

Trigger warning: mentions of self harm –not graphic

The summer was so hot and wet that the blackberries grew in engorged clusters, twice their usual size. When I closed my fingers around them to pull them from the vine they would burst, and the juice would spurt red up my arms and burn my skin, heated by the white sun. The berry picking was good for me: physical, mechanical work that I could do for hours. My mother was glad to see me out in the sun and fresh air, not holed up in my room for another summer. She bought me shorts and t-shirts to wear to work, and thick socks and boots to protect my feet and ankles from the thorns and stinging insects that abounded in the long grass.

I didn’t want to wear the t-shirts and shorts because I was embarrassed and shy of my skin’s glaring paleness, and the scars up my legs.  On the first day I stubbornly wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, but they stuck to me so tightly with sweat I could barely move my limbs. By midday the clothes were drenched, and it was a struggle to peel them from my body that night. The sleeves of my shirt were ripped to pieces, jeans were stained with juice, and both had so many sticks and thorns in them that trying to pull them out was an impossible task. I threw them out and resolved to wear the clothes that my mother bought me, regardless of how unsightly and self-conscious I felt. I reasoned that if I still wore my boots, I could stomp around and make enough noise that snakes would keep their distance from me.

The scars up my legs and arms quickly camouflaged amongst all the scratches I managed to collect. Everyone on the blackberry plantation was covered in stinging scratches by the end of a working day, so no one asked me where my scars were from or gave them funny looks. Perhaps they thought I’d gained them blackberry picking in the past, or that I’d grown up on a farm and had a nasty incident with a barbed wire fence. Perhaps they didn’t even notice them at all. Soon I forgot to notice them too.

‘They’re fading,’ my mother noted as she drove me home one day. ‘Must be the sun. You’re getting a tan.’

I jumped to cover myself with my sleeves in reflex, but I didn’t have sleeves. I was forced to look down at my arms and see that they were really fading. Only a few weeks ago they had been angry red and shiny lines. Now they were broken purple tissue, fading to a soft white.

My collection of sharp things was kept in an old take-away container under my bed: broken razors, pins, nails, shards of glass. There were Band-Aids and tissues and antiseptic cream in the container too. By the time I’d started the job at the blackberry plant, I hadn’t touched it for a whole month. I’d resolved to quit the habit, but kept the kit under my bed just in case. I played a game in my head constantly, trying to see how long I could go without looking at it, trying to beat my own score.

The night my mother had drawn my attention to the scars again, I couldn’t help getting the box out, just to look at it. I laid each item out on my white sheets, rolled up the hem of my nightie and laid a pin next to the last tiny mark. It was a tiny hardly-visible scratch now. I began to dig the end of the pin into the end of where that mark had been. But that feeling of relief and satisfaction didn’t sweep over me the way it used to. I didn’t even want to be doing it. I shoved everything back into the container, marched outside, planted it in the garbage bin, and slammed the top of the bin down.

I didn’t really talk to anyone else on the blackberry plant, though in hindsight I wish I had made some effort. A group of the other kids working there had applied for the job together, and they all knew each other from another high school across the city.

They all chatted during the working hours, and smoked cigarettes and drank beer out of opaque drink bottles after Friday shifts. None of us were old enough to buy alcohol; they’d taken it from older siblings or friends or their parent’s liquor cabinets when they weren’t looking. There was a river a short walk from the plant, and they’d all go off there together to swim and drink, covered in blackberry brambles, sunburn and sweat. I could hear them laughing and squealing together as they went. Half of me wanted to go with them, but the other half knew that any attempt at socialising would end in the feeling that no one really wanted me there anyway.

One Friday afternoon I swam in the river by myself. I’d taken a punnet of the berries we’d picked from the store shed, leaving a handful of change in its place, and ate the entire thing by myself on the bank in my t-shirt and underwear. The juice ran in streams down between my fingers, dropping onto my shirt, stained the cracks in my lips. The muddy grass left marks on the backs of my thighs and my palms, and the stale-water smell seeped into my clothes. The mud from the bank dried on my skin in cracking patches. Mosquitos clambered around my blackberry-scratched-up legs, fighting for blood. I felt sticky and dirty and was crawling with river-side insects, so I waded back into the river to wash the sticky, dirty feeling away, and floated on my back with my eyes closed against the setting sun.

When I opened my eyes, two kookaburras were flying above me, with the unmistakable silhouette of a writhing snake shared between their talons. One held the creature just below its head so it couldn’t bite. I scrambled out of the water, chills ricocheting down my body. Prepared to run. But I couldn’t take my widened eyes away from the haunting birds; I watched, fixated as they flew higher, and in perfect unison dropped the snake to its death. It flailed about in its fall, lashing pathetically. It landed on the opposite side of the bank. I heard the weight of it colliding with the earth, vertebrae shattering. The sound still makes my blood curdle; I don’t think I will ever forget it. The kookaburra pair descended immediately, wasting no breath before tearing into the snake with talons and beak, the body still in its death throes.

I pretended to be sick to avoid the blackberry plant for a week after that. Not only because the presence of snakes had been confirmed and that terrified me, but because the kookaburra’s vicious killing had had a strange effect on me. I couldn’t work out why; I dreamt of that scene for nights afterwards, and the sound of the snake shattering continued to replay itself in my head, as though it was an omen. Eventually it faded into the back of my consciousness; I forgot to fixate on it, and my false ailments piqued the suspicion of my mother. I went back to work.

The last day at the blackberry plant was three days before the next school year started. Some of my last paychecks had gone to schoolbooks and new school shoes, because my feet had grown a whole size over the summer. I’d managed to save most of it though; my parents had told me they’d go halves if I saved enough to buy a car for my sixteenth birthday, so I could still have some money left in my savings.

I was daydreaming about the freedom I’d have with my own car while picking from my wooden stool –the road trips, driving myself to school– blindly plunging my hands into the bushes, dropping the berries in the bucket near my feet. I’d grown used to the thorns and the leaves scraping my hands and didn’t care about them so much anymore. My mother was right about the tan; I liked the way my arms moved as they worked, how the glaring paleness had bronzed, the new tone of the muscles in my arms. I exhaled a deep breath of the country air and admired the way the sun bore through the blackberry leaves to leave a green tinge on my skin. There was so much green around, from the intense sun and heavy rainfall; long silky fields of grass. The leaves were one shade, the grasses around me another more vivid, vibrant green. Around the shaded roots of the blackberry thickets the grass was more yellow and wilted.

Then I noticed it, a heavy rope of gold chainmail, light glistening across tessellated scales –barely an arm’s length away from me. How long had it been waiting there? I felt my heartbeat in my throat and my blood ran cold. If I withdrew slowly and quietly, I could get away from it without it even noticing. I lifted myself off the seat, holding my breath, trying to move my booted feet.

As I put one down in front of the other, the snake writhed itself from sleep, and saw me. I froze. We couldn’t have been more than half a metre from each other; I was certain that it was close enough to lunge forward and bite me anywhere it chose to. I grew very aware of my bare legs. Could I back away without causing him to suddenly lunge and bite? My heart pounded blood through the veins in my neck, and sweat threatened to drip into my eyes. I had to blink, but was afraid to. I reached my hand down to the handle of the bucket slowly, but the motion made the sweat drip through my eyelashes. It stung, and I blinked and winced at the same time, my voice too loud.

The snake struck out, locked itself into my wrist, then shook itself off and slithered into the thickets behind me.

I’d screamed when the snake had bitten me, and three of the other kids working nearby had rushed over to ask if I was all right. The shock had whitened my sight, and I couldn’t hear a thing. They saw the puncture wounds in my wrist, and the seeping blood. I remember hearing an exclamation of “Oh my God,” and “Larissa, did you see what kind of snake bit you?” but I wasn’t able to speak more than a few slurred syllables. One of the girls untied the shirt from around her waist and wrapped my arm up tight, guiding me to the ground to lie down. The boy pulled his phone out of his pocket and called an ambulance.

‘Snakes don’t always use their venom when they bite out of fear,’ the other girl said reassuringly. ‘You should try to keep your arm straight, and stay as still as possible.’

I tried to keep my breathing steady but they were coming out in jagged little sobs. The shock made me feel sure the snake had injected all of its venom into me and I was surely dying. Nausea wracked my stomach and I rolled over to vomit into the thickets. I looked up to the sky, letting the sun burn my eyelids.

I was not dying. The medics poked and prodded at me, with lights in my eyes and needles to take my blood. In films, hospital scenes are always rushed, full of suspense and urgency. But this was slow, the procedures calmly carried out, clinical and sterile as the bleached walls, as though this wasn’t an emergency at all and everyone else was overreacting. The steady beeping of machines seemed to keep the building moving like clockwork. I kept thinking of a line in a poem, something about feeling like a pebble in a river of nurses and doctors, slowly being smoothed over. I couldn’t remember which poem it was or who wrote it. I drifted in and out of sleep, partly out of exhaustion and partly out of boredom; there was little to do in the confines of the cot, with cords and tubes poking out of my arms. It was twelve hours before they let me go, a bandage around the bite wound as my only souvenir.

The punctures scabbed over and flaked away in a matter of days, despite my desperate scratching at them through the bandage. When the bandage came off the day before term began, they had softened to two little red scars. I kept tracing my fingers over them, the way I used to with my other scars. These were different though: circular, almost alien bumps instead of long gashes. On the bus to school I took out my pencil case and drew a curved line underneath the bite, turning them into little eyes atop a smile. When the other kids asked me what the scars were I smiled to myself, knowing they were the only visible scars I had left; all the others had faded, as though they’d never been there in the first place.

Image: Jared Smith

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12270097_10207345023517394_1588630587_nVince Ruston (21) is a writer and Voiceworks editor originally hailing from Hobart. Currently they are undertaking RMIT’s Bachelor of creative writing and interning for The Lifted Brow. They have been published in Voiceworks, Scum-Mag, Rabbit Poetry Journal, Catalyst and Gore Journal. You can find them on WordPressTumblr and Twitter.

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