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By Katrina Harms All Rights Reserved ©


Chapter 1

First there were piles of stones when the field was new, and we cleared the rows of obstruction. Bits of mossy dolomite and chunks of cement, sandstone and granite, we piled in the grassy copses severing one field from the next, dividing one ancient neighborly vendetta from another. Then our machines broke down and rusted, and we left them where they stood, gangly threshers and combines and rickety tractors and wagons, we left them to pile where our crops did not grow, and watched the thistles and purple brambles devouring their corroded remains. Then the trucks and cars and wood paneled RVs and boat motors, piles and piles of wooden pallets rotting into the earth, oil and paint cans rusted orange, tools and moth eaten furniture, ointment bottles, mud-caked clothing, mangled wire hangers, worn out toys, and eventually bags of trash we couldn't seem to be rid of between seasons. Our rotting and lingering garbage heaved against the farmhouse walls, its sagging and peeling frame near to bursting. The homestead was unlivable, condemned they say, the muggy Wisconsin summer spewing out fly-dotted pink insulation, and the endless desolation of winter ravishing the old place to a skeleton of rotted drywall and useless hanging light fixtures, the floor ripe with animal scat.

So we bought the trailer, beaching it on cement blocks. And we ignored the piles littering our elm thicket, the wasp-infested rows of electricity insulator knobs, and ziggurats of moldy boxes filled with waterlogged magazines and old newspapers that would someday be worth a fortune. The raw wooden barn roof imploded after years of precariously bracing itself over a mound of old hay. We didn't notice, and when we did we shrugged and watched the fizzling sun disappear over the pines.

Then one day we died, quickly or quietly, with an unfussy funeral. Ham sandwiches on buttered rolls were served in the church basement immediately following. The homestead sat, back-taxes consuming the land, parceled off to be auctioned, rented at inflated price to migrant farmers. But the piles stayed, the house decaying into nothing, teenage spray paint disrupting the natural reclamation process with wet red expletives. After the city people took apart the barn to make their reclaimed end tables, the house was bulldozed and put to sale. But those piles, the legacy of a farm withered and lost, sat against the earth as a testament to human failure.

Rutherford Township was known for its water birds, its endless stretches of marshy conservation land, its bulletproof zoning laws. At the end of gravel driveways people sold asparagus and strawberries out of blue Coleman coolers, against the house they stacked wood from fallen trees to last through the long winter. They planted wave petunias in whisky half barrels like good country types. They didn't notice when the township had hauled the remnants from that broken farm to fill in the ravine overlooking Sod Lake, then covered it with dirt. But the girl did.

She had fallen into that viney ravine once, right into a hornet's nest-- the swollen sting above her eyes left her half blind for a week, and she never ceased to observe as one miracle-cured when her sight returned. The lake was glacially formed, which seemed mystical to her, like the water was deep enough to sink through the layers of time, its ancient bedrock teeming with prehistoric creatures. Lily pads speckled the marshy water, which curled around a great bog of droopy conifers. Sandhill cranes cackled along the water, while the gaggles of Canada geese trolled the shallows with their goslings. They honked in defense as she approached the shore. The tea-colored water was warm and clear, and she sat back on her haunches to feel the lake's ebbing pulse in between her fingers and the spongy squelch of mud under her shoes. The sky was dotted with cottony clouds against the vast blue, and how she wished she could linger on until the bullfrogs began their baritone love songs and the stars peeked out from the indigo twilight, how she longed for the obscure anonymity of nature.

She followed the mossy shoreline, as she always did, hedging the deep brush of invasive honeysuckle which tangled the downsloping forest of birches and oaks. Wild raspberry bushes clung to her pant legs, and she stopped to nibble a few sweet gems as she pressed on through the woods. Here the ground was tufted with dewy grass, flattening out to deciduous underbrush. High in the canopy of old growth oaks, a sleepy ash-colored owl watched her pass beneath. The forest widened, someone's overgrown ATV trail mossed and mushroomed over, the velvety red limbs of sumac giving way to clusters of elm and walnut. From the rear she recognized the slope of the vale, its vines plunging from above into the vernal pillow of trees.

Beneath a lithe paper birch, the albino fur of a deer carcass lay in humbled repose. And then the cans, bare and rusted the color of terra cotta, their corroded dust spotting the ground beneath them. And the pans and garbage. And the barrels and trash bags, torn open like an aberrant ovum, their monstrous contents erupted upon the green earth, unmoving, undecaying.

She stood in the chilly corridor of woods, her heart blackening with the sunless ravine's new contents. A curious grackle squawked above her, and she walked among the tumble of forgotten miscellany, entranced by its brazenness, its ugliness. What once gave comfort or utility, the meager and unimpressive possessions of some unknown person now lay strewn about in shameless panorama upon the forest floor. While the verdant grove and its denizens bore no mind of the piles, this newfound human presence humiliated and disturbed the girl.

The littered array of farm trash felt neither sacred nor profane, and after a time, like each particular tree in the sea of woods, it became indistinct and blurred into the surrounding forest. Whose they were, wherefrom they came hardly mattered- they were everyone's and no one's.

When she returned the following weekend, eager to tend to the state of her trove, the girl was appalled by what she found. The deep vale of grass and trash had been buried in dirt, the telltale tank treads from some enormous bulldozer staggered over the scrapes of pounded-down earth. It was as though a rushed burial had transpired, and the thought chilled her, not only because she wondered at what had been buried and why, but that this land was environmentally protected, and what else had been hurriedly concealed beneath piles of dirt by the township?

After a month or so, when the maples began to glow with the golden plumage of autumn, grass and leaves obscured the covered ravine, and no one, save the girl, would have known what lay beneath the ground.

Winter was long, and we slept. Deeply this time, for none could disturb us, no howls of dogs or collectors demanding payment. Just the heavy insulating silence of Orion's belt above, the sheltering blanket of earth and snow. Even in 40 below zero weather, when a man's exposed finger tips and ears would blacken, we were safe. The marshy Sod Lake froze solidly over, a thick fluffy mantle of snow carpeting its surface. The pines held the icy bounty in their thick needled arms, and everything was white and silent.

Spring brought the cranes, the geese, the finches and robins. Crests of rain-carved snow banks became brittle and melted, and green appeared on the earth, with it the farmers and their planting machines.

The dirt-covered ravine became lush with grass, and before long no one, not even the girl, could remember how it had looked before. Finding the vale strewn with junk seemed more a dream than a memory, and the ever-growing thickets of honeysuckle wove over the ground, thick festoons of raspberry plants fought for space in the sunny grass, their long jagged tentacles massing upon each other.

Summer filled every open space with humming green, and the endless fields of sky high corn waved in the slight breeze like a vast ocean. In the deep woods the berries grew thick, fat and in multitudinous supply. As well as being born with straight teeth and broad shoulders, the girl had no allergy to mosquito bites. When others ached and moaned, slapping and spraying the buzzing bloodsuckers, she merely brushed them away, or let them feast on what little blood they could gather. So trekking into the droning nest of raspberries safeguarded by a Napoleonic army of mosquitoes didn't bother her at all. On and on through the prickly brush, she was insatiable. Each turn exposed another trove of glistening black caps or fat plush red berries. Her fingers were stained a permanent magenta, her legs an unhealing mass of scratches and cuts, but before her she saw only more. More! Jams and jellies and pies and scones. Raspberries there for the taking. She peeled away the thick and highly barbed purple brambles, revealing a strange new variety: the size of nickels, fat white raspberries. She pulled the ripe berry from its bed and marveled at how enormous and juicy it was. In a separate container she filled to the brim with the strange white berries.

The sun was drooping over the corn, and she hurried home. Over the stove she watched the pale white treasures bubble and froth, emitting an odd scarlet excretion that gurgled and disappeared beneath the surface. The boiling syrup thickened, and greedily she filled her jars, longing for more. Each day she returned to find her secret patch bursting with plump white berries. She had come to ignore all other varieties. Like glistening white pearls along a treacherous reef, she tugged at each one hungrily, finding her greed increased with each acquisition. She popped them into her mouth, astounded by the frightfully audacious flavor: a tinny, wormish taste that possessed the tongue; a sorrowful and musty taste unlike anything she would have imagined, the dry heavy smell of unmucked stalls and mildewed plaster, the acrid stench of unwashed bodies, of gangrene and cheap liquor.

She looked around her, horrified and mesmerized by the wild patch buzzing with mosquitoes, the endless crop before her, the wretched and tantalizing taste throbbing in her jaw. The agonizing harvest went on until her eyes and back ached, and her slashed limbs bled. She was stunned by the seemingly sudden darkness of the muggy starless night, and the car rumbled wearily away down the gravel road. Buckets and buckets of perfectly ripe white raspberries filled her refrigerator and spread across her filthy kitchen counter. But she was haunted by their metallic flavor, and when sleep finally came, it was of the patch she dreamt.

Others told her of such dreams they'd had, after slathering toast with her nefarious preserves, and waking unrestedly in sweat after dark imaginings of narrow sunken passageways and rooms buried in filth. They dreaded sleep and despised the jam which they craved despite its polluted flavor. They told no one else of what they saw when we waited in each dim corner of their imagination, and she apologized for what she had done, yet pined in earnest for her waitressing shift to end.

The road was long, longer than she remembered, and the corn was growing brittle and golden all around her. The raspberry season was winding down, and her precious white berries grew scarce. She could feel the corroded taste humming in her lips, feel the rush of the pluck and gather, the humid forest air, the sting of sunburned skin tearing beneath the barb of thorns. Above her head a familiar caw of a grackle rang out, its curious head cocked in its perch upon an old oak tree.

She craned her neck to watch him, the deep ache in her back burning, her numb fingertips. The forest foliage had grown thin, and she could see the slight glimmer of the lake through the trees. But caught in the remaining throes of the harvest, she knelt in ambivalent anguish in a bed of thorns. She yearned for the days before she had found the raspberries, so long ago it seemed. Especially those wretched berries that consumed her mind, waking and asleep. Why do I dream of those cavernous doorways, the stench and grit of detritus and rot? She clenched the mighty lavender stalks in her hands, and their razor like barbs sliced through her skin like needles through paper, and she wept. But behind her eyes she only saw the piles, the piles. Great monoliths of rusted farm machines and dilapidated boards. In her nose, her mouth, her throat the unrelenting reek of sour milk, of barn lofts, of death.

Whatever infected the earth when it was buried that day would not be forgotten easily. She buried the preserves where their plants grew, she felt the uneasy soil escaping between her fingers, the strange and horrid longing possessing her as when she picked the berries. But she stood when the jars were planted, turning south towards the lake, never to return to the buried piles upon the hill.

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