Excerpt from The Berry Pickers
BY AMANDA PETERS
For no reason in particular, I got off the highway in Swift Current and made my way down to the grasslands just north of the border. A dirt road cut through fields of tall grass abandoning their green in preparation for winter. The yellow stalks swayed with the wind—Mother Nature running her fingers through her hair. It seemed to me that the horizon moved farther away the closer I got. Clouds, every colour of grey, began to settle on the line between land and sky. Then they started to pile on top of one another so casually I barely noticed, until a flash of lightning erupted from a dark cloud directly in front of me. I pulled over and opened the door to breathe in some of that heavy prairie air—the air that comes before a storm, full of moisture and electricity. The land was so vast and quiet that I could imagine myself as the only person on earth.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
I shook so hard at the sound of another voice that I thought for a moment that I’d pulled every muscle in my body.
“There’s a storm coming.”
I turned to see a woman, Indian for sure, around my age. She was wearing jeans and a bright yellow T-shirt. She was carrying long stalks of grass in her arms. I looked around for a car but there was none, just a woman in the middle of nowhere, carrying an armful of grass.
“Where’d you come from?” I said.
“My mother. Same as you.” She winked at me and leaned against the truck. “Just so you know, I can outrun you in case you think these fields would be a good place to commit a crime against me. And I hide a good, sharp knife somewhere on my body. I can reach it faster than you can get to me.”
“I have no intention of hurting anyone.” My heart had just started to slow back down when a strike of lightning burst from the clouds, followed by a peal of thunder. “What’s your name?”
She sat down on the ditch’s edge, a couple feet from me. “I don’t go giving my name out to every stranger I meet. Does it matter if you don’t know my name?”
“I guess not.”
She was strange, but there was something calming about her. We sat quietly, eyeing the clouds, waiting for the rain.
“Do you want to know my name?” I said.
“Only if you want to give it to me.”
“Joe.” She reached up to push some stray hair behind her ear. “So, what are you doing all the way out here in a truck that belongs on the other side of the country, Joe?” She pointed to the licence plate.
“I just needed to get away.”
“So, you’re running.”
“We’re all running from something.”
“Well, well, aren’t you the Indian philosopher king.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
She didn’t say a thing, just sat there and looked at me as I looked out over the grass. “You going to judge me?” I said to break the silence.
“Hell no, I have no judgments. I don’t know you, Joe. You just look like one of those Indians who goes out into the grass to find themselves.” She laughed at this. “Better than the white folks, I guess. They come out here to off themselves.”
Another bolt of lightning ripped across the sky, followed closely by a deep growl of thunder.
“I hope this rain holds until I get home. I got new shoes. Wouldn’t want to ruin them before I get to properly break them in.” She lifted up her leg to show off a new sneaker, white with black laces.
Unlike the man whose house I’d painted, she made me feel at ease sitting out here in the middle of nowhere. There was so much empty space for thoughts to escape into. I tried to rein mine in, but I opened my mouth and one just flowed out: “Do you think we’re sour? Do we Indians have something in our blood that makes us bad?”
She laughed at the same time the thunder clapped, drowning it out. It was eerie, watching her throw her head back, her silent laugh bordered by the dirt road, the grass moving faster now under the low, dark clouds.
“The only thing sour right now is your smell, and a quick shower will help with that. Where’d you get the idea we’re sour?”
“I heard it once a long time ago, and since then, everything has just kinda gone wrong.”
“People seem to need to get away from me. And sometimes I help them along.” I held up my hand. The last of the bruising was hard to see in the faded light. The cut where my knuckles found Cora’s teeth was now a thinning white line against my brown skin.
She took my hand in hers, inspected it and then placed it back in my lap. She didn’t ask about the scars; she didn’t need to. I stayed quiet as we watched the first raindrops crater the dry earth with their heaviness.
“You know what I think, Joe?” She placed her hands at her sides, palms on the ground, ready to lift herself up. “I think that we all do bad things, but that don’t always make us bad people.” She stood above me, looking down, the dark skies above drowning out the contours of her face.
“Maybe you have bad luck, but there is nothing sour in us. We’ve been through shit, remember. Every one of us alive today comes from something bad done to the family that came before us. You being alive is a goddamn miracle, so no more talk about sour blood. Own your mistakes, make amends and move on. We owe that to those who didn’t make it.” She dusted herself off and bent to pick up the grass she’d been carrying. “You want to give me a lift?”
As we got in the truck, the skies opened. The sound of the rain on the roof and the gravel under the tires put an end to conversation as she guided me to the end of the dirt road, her long, slender finger pointing straight ahead. On the corner was a small house painted a patchwork of colours and designs. Gardens overflowing with flowers and vegetables surrounded the house. The leaves on the fruit trees shuddered under the thrumming of the rain.
“I like things to be beautiful.” She opened the door. “You wait here, Joe.” She laid the grass on the front stoop, went into her garden and started hauling food from the land and off the trees. She came back wet with a bundle of carrots, some radishes and a few apples, and handed them to me through the window.
“Good luck, Joe. I hope you find some peace.”
“I’m glad I found you. Thank you.”
“No need for thanks, just take care.”
She slapped the side of the truck and ran for the house. I watched as the water fell hard and constant, obscuring everything on the other side of the windshield. I felt a keen sadness when she disappeared into the house, shutting the white door painted with flowers tight against the storm.
When the rain started to settle into a steady rhythm, one my windshield wipers could keep up with, I found my way back to the main road. The radio was useless in a storm this loud, so I drove on with only my thoughts and the sound of the rain. I drove until the grey clouds were far behind me, a reflection in the rear-view mirror.