Summers at Grandpa’s were magical. He’d built his cabin in a small hollow, a few miles from Ox Mountain. Every summer, Zeke’s parents would load the family into the station wagon and race the five hours there. Zeke loved arriving at the head of the long gravel drive, always baking in the summer sun. His dad would turn left and he could hear the tires grinding over the rocks like an amplified soundtrack of a cow chewing grass. And there were many cows, always lazily scattered across the rolling field to the right of the drive, a good number of them without fail hovering around the brown pond, the one where Zeke had learned to fish and discovered the sensation of water-logged cow patties squirting between his toes. The station wagon would slowly grind past the old family homestead on the right. It had fallen apart over the years, and while the gray-hairs in the family remembered and told stories of dinners and front porch picking on Sunday afternoons, all the kids warily considered it the home of copperheads, bears, or other mountain monsters that cannot be named.
Coming off the hill and into Grandpa’s hollow felt like entering Eden, or like jumping off the bank and into the pond. Cool shade replaced cooking sun. Grass as green as Mary’s eyes carpeted the floor. Two pine sentinels towered in the middle of the property, which was fortified on all sides by red soil slopes and dense trees. The only creek in the world colder than freezing without freezing lined the front like a moat, and only the bravest could submerge in it, even at the hottest hour.
Grandpa’s cabin sat up against the back tree line, its large front porch held up by old logs with more glory than any Greek pillars. The fountain of youth sprang from rocks to the right of the cabin, sweetened by limestone and unmatchable in refreshment. The cabin’s kitchen window overlooked this fountain and regularly beckoned gulpers inside with the aromas of fresh rolls and rhubarb pies, edible poetry brought into existence by Grandma.
Days spent at this cabin held forth seemingly endless opportunities for Zeke to explore and discover and conquer. And he relished them.
Except for the summer days of 1998. Far from relishing those days, he had ruined them. On the first morning at the cabin that summer, Zeke’s dad took him behind the cabin and up the hill some 20 yards. They stopped when thorns started pulling on their sleeves. But neither minded the thorns because Zeke’s dad had taken him to a blackberry bush, hanging low with plump, dark purple juice grenades. Time stopped moving as Zeke and his dad let berry after berry send fragments of juice and seed across their teeth and tongues. Zeke was pulled out of his berry daze by his dad’s hand on his shoulder.
“Son, this is just one of the bushes Grandpa told me about last night, and there are enough berries this year for our whole family to have purple teeth through the fall. I wanted to take you up here with me this morning so we could pick some and take them down to the ladies, after eating a few ourselves, of course. And if you bring your brother up here later on today, just know that if y’all go higher up the hill, there are bushes like this one, but you can’t eat from them. Those berries will turn your insides out, make y’all puke out of your earholes.”
Zeke’s dad really did always tell it straight. And Zeke had no intention of juicy bile coming out of his earholes. He nodded with the grin of a boy whose dad had just talked to him about vomit, popped a couple more berries in his mouth, and started picking some for the ladies.
Zeke was the kind of kid who always scratched his mosquito bites. No matter how many times he was told that scratching made it worse, his fingers would find their way to the dermatological volcano of irritation and start scraping. And so, in the early evening of the same day, with teeth still purple from the morning berry feast with his dad, Zeke trudged up the hillside alone, itching to get a look at these vomit inducing bushes higher up.
One hundred yards up the hill and the itch was almost gone with his breath, but not quite. That’s when he saw them. They were mesmerizing. Huffing his way closer, he wondered that the bushes could still stand. The berries must have been twice as large as the ones below, and they hung on the bushes like dark clouds of mountain jewels. With a mind of its own, Zeke’s right hand snaked out and plucked the largest berry within reach, its juice staining his thumb and forefinger like a leaky pen. He held it close to his eye for inspection, and it looked delicious. His father’s warning sounded off in his head, but the sight of the berry in his fingers turned the morning’s words into white noise. One berry couldn’t hurt. And how could he know if they were actually poisonous if he didn’t try it himself? Zeke’s hand travelled the well-worn path to his mouth, the berry went in, flavors charged across his tongue like a herd of mustangs on the prairie, his eyes shut, and he sat down against a trunk in delight. That was sweeter than rhubarb pie. He had never tasted anything quite like it. Pausing a half breath to gauge the stability of his innards, Zeke greedily plucked and popped five more. It was as he went for his third helping that his stomach burbled. The burbling stilled his berry seeking hands and turned white noise back into clear warning. He jumped to his feet to get back to the cabin, but it was too late. Zeke grimaced, put his hands on his knees, and lurched as Vesuvius came forth, first held back by Hoover teeth, then raining berry bile on his sneakers. Zeke went between watching seeds hop off the ends of his shoes and into the dirt like popcorn, bile puddles turn into red mud rivers traveling between his legs and downhill, and screwing his eyes as tight as possible to ignore the heaving upon heaving which seemed like it was drawing liquid from his very bones to eject ammunition in the cannonade.
“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid idiot!” His mind growled at him. “Why didn’t you just listen? Why’d you come up here? Why’d you taste them, you stupid id…” His mind couldn’t even finish the thought. He lurched yet again, his inner growl turned to a groan, to a whimper, and he collapsed like a chicken carcass after being “processed”.
The earwig on his ear lobe brought him to groggy consciousness. Zeke’s cheek and mouth were soaking in berry bile mud from the earlier traumatic event—how much earlier, he was unsure. Brushing his ear, he tiredly inched into a seated position, futilely wiping his face with his sopping shirt. He needed to get home. Mom would know how to make him feel better. Too tired to stand up, Zeke began slowly scootching down the hill on his rump. His mouth tasted awful, exactly how spoiled milk and rotten eggs mixed in a blender must taste. He’d have to dare his little brother to try that.
Zeke stopped scootching after a few feet. In an attempt to escape the taste presently assaulting them, his tastebuds had remembered the overwhelming sweetness of the berries behind him. And as they remembered, Zeke found himself actually craving them. He turned his worn out body and looked at the berries, those perseveringly inviting berries. The craving was strong, and he would satiate it. Internal alarms roared at the insanity of what was unfolding; but Zeke blinked a couple times to turn them off, crawled back up the few feet he’d descended, reached that same dark hand out, and plucked a berry. It was going to taste so good, good enough to get rid of the terrible flavors in his mouth.