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Francis Halpin

Brackenberries: Into the Vine

It wasn’t because of the rules. I remembered the rules. How could any of us have forgotten the rules? The rules were the foundation. They were the only thing that kept you safe when the calling was strong and your mind was weak. Just remember the rules. And after all, there were only three.

We would sing them sometimes by the fire at night. We knew the elders liked hearing them in song–knowing they were part of us–weaved into the fabric of our being. See, the elders were tired of picking the berries–many weren’t coming back now. It was time to pass the burden to the younger generation–though we were still only children.

After singing and dancing round the fire, everyone grew tired and ready for sleep. Some were excited and some were scared because it was decided that we’d go tonight. We wouldn’t know who. If the elders woke you, then you were one of the chosen.

We couldn’t sleep. None of us could. There was quiet chatter all night until the crunch, crunch, crunch of their footsteps and the flap came open. It was dark. We couldn’t see the elders coming in, just heard the shuffle of feet moving this way and that. I could hardly breath. Closed my eyes real tight–sensing every part of my body–ready for a touch. Would it be my arm, my leg, my head? It had to be me. I was the most ready–not scared of those old vines.

And then I felt it–my arm–a strong squeeze and a whisper in my ear: “Jacob, come with me.” The hot breath faded into the night and I slowly stood. Dreaming it was one thing but standing up was another. I felt my body shaking–betraying me. No, I was ready. Stop it, stop your shaking. But it didn’t help. I followed out the flap and into the night. In the dark at least, they couldn’t see . . . I was scared.

We were being lined up–getting ready to march. I felt someone by my side. “It’s Jacob,” I said. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Patrice . . . Are you scared?”

I didn’t answer. Patrice? How could that be? She was the least ready of anyone. Patrice? They’re sending us in there with Patrice? This was a mistake. They must think she’s someone else–got mixed up in the dark.

“Jacob, you there? It’s okay. I’m scared too. Just remember the rules.”

“I know the rules, Patrice!” I was more irritated now than scared. “Don’t be telling me to remember the rules.” You best remember to bring your head along. What are they doing–sending the best and the worst? A test, a gauge maybe?

She tapped my shoulder. So I took her hand and tapped the boy in front of me. I think it was Devin, smelled like Devin. He brought his hand back and so it went up the line until we were all holding. Then Devin tugged and away we went.

The vines are an aberration, the elders said. Came about before their time–origin unknown. They advance at night and catch their prey during the day, mostly. That’s why we pick’em at night. Picking their berries slows them down . . . but also makes them scream–we hear them mostly in the mornings. Everyone is saying it’ll be time to move the village again soon.

We were getting closer and my heart was thumping, thumping, thumping. We had snuck over the hill before–just to get a look at’em. We went there once in the morning when they were screaming loud, sounding like a whistling fire, enraged and hot . . . seriously pissed off about losing their berries.

Over the hill now we came and down the slope. Starlight allowed me to see . . . It was like coming down onto the beach and seeing the ocean stretching out to the horizon. But here it was a mangle of twisted earth and vine, cracking and moaning–not pleasant like the waves.

We stopped, and Devin’s hand went away. He was given a whistle and his partner was given a bucket. The berries bled when you picked’em. The bucket had holes, so it could drain. Once you filled your bucket you returned to your sentry.

There were two in a team: a sentry stationed where you entered, watching the creep and blowing the whistle when the vines advanced two steps; and a picker, working inside the vines.

The picker counted steps in, so they’d know the steps out. Knowing the steps kept back the confusion–helped save you from losing your way. When your sentry blew the whistle, you took two steps back–that was rule number one.

Devin and his partner were directed off to the northern field. My turn now . . . Oh no, no way. If Devin was a sentry that meant I’d be a picker and . . . Patrice would be my sentry.

I know it was the simplest of jobs–just watch the creep and blow the whistle. But Patrice? She might get distracted by a silly Gullop Fly and run off chasing it. The elders better watch her or I’m done for.

We reached the edge of the field. It was like nothing I could’ve imagined up close. The scale was crushing–a monster wave of earthen vine, matted and twisted to hell, ten-times my height, towering over us. 

We felt the weight.

I looked at Patrice–waited ‘til she could see my eyes looking through her, right into her soul. Then I sent a thought at her real hard: You better watch the creep.

I grabbed her whistle and stuffed it in her mouth. I think she understood. She stepped to the base of the vine and set her foot like we’d been shown. At least she got that right. Probably her way of saying: I got this. 

Her foot was my starting count. I would push my way into the snarling mess from there. If the vines played tricks–if the vines advanced–Patrice and that whistle were my lifeline. I had to keep my count.

I stepped down next to her foot and then took one step in. There was a bit of an opening. I took my second step in and then my third. Then it felt like the vines closed in, so I looked up.

There was starlight way up in the sky. I could see it through the crisscrossing mess of moving vines. I stepped again over the soft humping earth–that’s four. There were noises around me and I felt a prickle at my leg. I think it was the sounds of vines crawling and a nasty little thorn scraping me.

The whistle blew. 

The whistle? What the hell? I turned round ready to punch Patrice in the face. She think this is a joke or something? They couldn’t have advanced already. I was only four steps in . . .

But then I wasn’t.

I looked back and Patrice was gone. And I realized, the whistle had sounded like it was far away. Oh, no . . . I’ve lost my count? Four? I can’t count to four? No. Can’t be. Just follow the rules. When you hear the whistle take two steps back. Just remember the damn rules.

I took two steps back and started counting again from four. It must be the vines were messing with me, already. I buried my fear and pushed forward. And that darn nasty thorn started scraping me again.

Step and step and many more steps–now twenty-four. That should be far enough to start picking. I turned left. The vines were so ugly, twisted and gnarled. I was looking and looking and then–thank goodness–there they were. Those nasty little berries, hiding in there. Gonna pick you, all of you. I reached in–they were hanging a little far back. Just needed to push in and . . .

The whistle.

Damn it, turn back, two steps back. Now, start again from twenty-four, and two steps more, twenty-five, twenty-six, turn back to the left and . . . they were gone. Damn those berries were gone.

Turn back and step and step and step again. Twenty-nine. Turn right this time. Agh, my knee. That evil prick of a thorn was in my knee. I dropped my bucket. Those thorns were sharp as blades and strong as knives. I swear they stabbed me.

The whistle.

Oh, shit. I reached down for my bucket and sliced my hand. The vines had moved under me. I need my bucket. I pushed down again–it had to be there. There it was, the handle. I pulled, but it pulled back. I pulled again, but it pulled back harder. 

The whistle again. 

No, not so fast. Two whistles, so four steps back? I had to remember, twenty-eight, twenty-nine? I pulled back on the handle hard as I could and the bucket ripped free. But the freeing force was so strong it sent me over backwards. A blanket of thorns pierced my shirt and flesh and I felt them thorns snag hard . . . on my bones.

This was all going wrong, very wrong. I stood up with my bucket. Now turn straight, four steps back, step, step, step and step. Now start again from twenty-eight. I got this. Four steps forward, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two and turn left this time.

You stinking-rotten berries best be there or hell, I’m gonna scream. Others probably had their buckets full and bleeding out heading back to their sentry. I got nothing in my bucket . . . but at least I got my bucket. Yes, at least I got your bucket.

Now concentrate. Where are you little bastard berries? I looked through the vines and into the dark. There you are, hanging there. I see you. You squishy little morsels of blood. I reached in fast and hard. If that whistle blew again I’d ignore it, swear I would. What’s a few steps anyway? 

Come here you, I got you. I put my fingers on the sides of that slimy berry. It oozed blood–plump and soft at the same time. I pulled and it resisted. No, you’re mine. I slipped my fingers round behind and I pulled again, harder. It popped free and right into my bucket it went. I got you now berries. This was a berry streak. There were hundreds hanging there for me. But that damn scratching was at my leg again–it was really digging in. 

Come to me berries–pop, pop, pop they went and into my bucket. Pop, pop, pop–I got you now. Pop, pop, pop–off they came. I was reaching and stretching–what a plethora of berries. My hands were dripping with berry blood.

It was harder to pick with the slimy blood covering every part of me. I mean, I didn’t remember spreading it all over. It was everywhere now, dripping down from every part of me. Not sure how it happened, but it smelled . . . good.

Pop, pop, pop–off they came. And then I licked my fingers. The blood tasted good, salty and sweet. And I was hungry. Been in here all night, I think. What am I supposed to eat? Did anyone think of that? Another lick. Yeah, that’s good. 

Maybe just one berry?

No, you never eat the berries–rule number two. Just remember the damn rules. You don’t ever eat the berries–no you never eat the berries–yes you never eat the berries . . . but then I ate a berry and it was . . . good.

Pop for the bucket and pop for me. Pop for the bucket and two pops for me. Pop for the bucket and three pops for me. Pop for the bucket and . . . six pops for me. 

The whistle.

Damn that darn whistle. This was the berry chamber. I had found the berry cellar. I’d have a full bucket now if . . . I hadn’t eaten the berries. But I had eaten the berries. Oh, I had.

Focus, turn back, two steps back, step, step. Start again, thirty . . . thirty . . . thirty . . . something. Step forward, thirty-two, thirty-three, turn right, no left this time.

The berries were awash in my gut. They sloshed forward and back, throwing me. Stop berries, stop that. Why you doing that? And then my gut flushed, and the berries washed into every part of me. I was drunk on those berries.

Oh no, this was no good. “Jacob, you’ve done yourself in,” I heard myself say. No, I heard someone say. No, I just heard it said, in my head. That must be the vines calling . . . they’re calling me now. So, I held my breath–rule number three. 

“Jacob, drop the bucket and come with us. Jacob, drop the bucket and come with us . . . Patrice drop that bucket and come with me.” Patrice? Dumb old Patrice. Ouch, damn that wretched thorn. I dropped my bucket and reached down. It was crawling on in me–I swear–climbing its way through.

My bucket, where’s my berry bucket? I felt round on the ground for it. Can’t lose my bleeding berry bucket. I felt to the left and the right. I turned round and . . .

The whistle.

I stood and looked. Don’t look, just remember. I had turned left and then right, so now it’s right and then left. I’m good. Take two steps back, step, step. Start again, thirty . . . thirty . . . maybe thirty. Step forward, thirty-two, no thirty-four, thirty-five. But my bucket, I lost my bucket . . . Oh, hell, just turn left and . . .

Someone was there–staring at me.

“Who’s there?” I said. But then I realized who it was. “What are you doing in here you crazy dumb-dumb, Patrice? You lost your stinking mind coming in here. Who’s going to blow the whistle? Who’s watching the creep?”

She didn’t answer.

She reached out to me and I yelled so loud: “I don’t need you Patrice! I know my count . . . you dumb bunny. This is the end of us both–you know that?”

She reached for my face.

“What the hell are you doing, Patrice? Let go of me.”

Her fingers were tight on the sides of my eyeball and she was pulling and pulling. It was hurting me. Then she slipped her fingers round behind and pulled again–harder this time. And I’ll be damned, pop it went and right into her bloody bucket.

And you know–now that I think about it–I never had started breathing again.


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