A Short Story by Pat Tompkins: Among the Briars

Tantalizing once described how I felt about blackberries. The wild bushes, heavy with fruit, were a gift of summer. But I’ve lost my taste for them. And summer, which once spelled freedom, now just means hot months to endure.

I’d been feeling grown-up because I had a new role: guardian. The winter before my last carefree summer, I found a stray puppy. According to my father, “All kids should have a pet. It teaches responsibility.” 

He talked of his boyhood beagle. My mother was pragmatic: “What happens when it throws up on my new carpet?”

I promised to walk him daily and feed him and clean up after him. Failure to do so meant the dog would go to the pound. I realize now that my parents wouldn’t have carried through with that threat. 

When they agreed to let him stay, I announced, “I’m calling him Alexander the Great.” 

“Pretty big name for a little guy,” Dad said. “How about Al?”

I walked Alex three times a day because he was thrilled to go out. As he grew, he walked me as he sniffed the news. On weekends, Alex rode in my bike basket to the golf course. While I collected stray balls, he hunted for ground squirrels.

The nine-hole golf course was modest and weather beaten, like the town. My dad, and half of Clarksburg, worked at the John Deere factory. My favorite hangout, the Carnegie Library, didn’t allow dogs, so I didn’t visit there much anymore.

I owed some of my freedom that summer to Alex. One evening, I overheard my parents in the backyard, sipping beer.

“About time you admitted I was right,” Dad said.

“About what?”

“That dog. He’s been good for Nan. He’s got her on the go day and night.”

“He does, but I don’t know that’s such a good thing. I’d just as soon she didn’t run all over town by herself.”

“But she’s not by herself. She’s got the dog. And she hasn’t got her head stuck in a book all the time like she used to.”

“At least she was safe at the library. I don’t know where she is sometimes.”

“This isn’t Chicago, Alice. She couldn’t get lost in this town if she tried.”

“I don’t mean lost.”  

The cushion on the folding chair sighed. By the time the screen door screeched open, I was headed upstairs, Alex bounding ahead of me.

As an only child, I was used to entertaining myself, and most kids in my neighborhood were several years older or younger, so Alex became my constant companion. One humid July morning, we went down by the river to pick blackberries. I considered leaving Alex home; he’d just collect burrs. But Mom would put him in the backyard and he preferred investigating the larger world. 

Photo: 123rf.com | Jan Anderson

The outer bushes of the wild blackberry patch, those facing the road, were picked over. Only crouching or stretching overhead yielded the ripe berries. That prospect lured me into the thicket. Brambles plucked at me and grasshoppers leapt as I ventured further. When I heard a rustle underfoot—a snake? Rats? I climbed a boulder. Birds had nibbled the fruit atop the bushes. Hot air vibrated like a cloud of gnats, and a breeze off the river tickled the leaves. Soon, I was practically dizzy from the berries’ fragrance, eating one for every three in the bucket. The taste made up for the accompanying spider webs and winged bugs, powdery gray like moths. 

The bucket was half full when Alex started barking, probably at other kids picking berries—the bushes stretched about 50 yards along the riverbank. But Alex sounded upset. With his leash tied around a butternut tree trunk, he could nose around but not reach the road. He stood, barking with his whole body, squared off against a man trying to free his pants leg from briars. When he straightened up, a thick vine hooked itself to his shirt. “Damnation.”

I almost laughed. Then he saw me. “Call off your dog, little missy.”

I didn’t like being called that, but he smiled in a way—wide with dimples—that made you smile back. To quiet Alex, I rubbed his chest. “What a good, smart boy,” I said. He stopped barking but trembled.

“What are you doing?” I asked the man. 

“Picking berries, same as you,” he said, as he finished freeing himself from the thorny canes. His shadow fell on me.

“Where’s your bucket?” 

“Oh, I’m not collecting any,” he said. “Just eating ’em for breakfast.” 

Maybe he was one of the hoboes I’d heard about who passed through on the freight train; I was sorry that Alex had bothered him. 

“At Svenhard’s bakery, you can get day-old rolls half price.” 

“Is that a fact? I could eat a jelly doughnut or three or four.”

Then he plucked two berries and popped them in his mouth, and I noticed his fingertips weren’t purple like mine. I also noticed that his jeans were unzipped. I backed up.

“Sure tasty,” the man said and smiled again.

I nodded and untied Alex, who was sitting now. I jerked his leash. “C’mon.” 

The man reached for a cluster of berries overhead. He grabbed one berry and as he pulled it off the cluster snapped back up. He stood on tiptoe to reach again. “Tantalizing. The best are always out of reach.”

“Those are for the birds.” I tugged at Alex.

“You know about old Tantalus, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“He was a king back in the days of the ancient Greeks. Got sent to Hades—hell—and his punishment was to stand in a pool of water with a bunch of fruit hanging off a branch above him. If he tried to eat the fruit, the wind moved it out of his reach. If he tried to drink, the water level dropped. So he was surrounded by plenty but had to do without. Forever.”

What had Tantalus done to be punished? I was afraid to ask. 

“Anyhow, that’s where we get tantalize,” he said, drawing out the last word. A crow caught Alex’s interest, and as he stood, I pulled him away.

“Bye,” the man said. I felt him watching me head for my bike. 

Alex ran alongside me; I pedaled fast for about a mile and stopped at a gas station. Alex lapped water from a Dixie cup I filled and refilled. In years past, I’d picked berries at that same spot without Alex. What if that man had snuck up on me alone? With the quarter in my pocket—Mom said always carry one for the phone—I got cheese crackers with peanut butter from the vending machine for Alex. 

When Mom poured the fruit into a colander, she said, “This isn’t enough to make jam. Why didn’t you pick more?”

“I got hot,” I said. I didn’t want to mention the man. If I did, she’d tell me to stay away from there, not go off by myself. And nothing had happened, really. I’d sensed he was lying. Adults and kids lie to each other all the time. His lie was the kind without good intentions. Mine was harmless. “It’s your fault, making me wear these long sleeves and pants.”

“I didn’t want you getting all scratched up.” She pulled a leaf from my hair. “I can make a pie with these. But blackberry jam is your father’s favorite.”

“I’ll get more tomorrow,” I said.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. We’re going to the lake this weekend, remember?”

“OK, I’ll get berries Monday.” I had forgotten my plans to teach Alex how to swim. Meanwhile, I wanted to find out about this Tantalus guy. I didn’t want to ask my mother; she’d want to know why I was asking. I looked in our encyclopedia—nothing—and in the dictionary, which confirmed the origin of tantalize. It did seem an awful predicament, being up to your neck in water but unable to drink, fruit dangling just out of reach. What had Tantalus done?

After lunch I rode over to the library. I asked the librarian, “Can you tell me about Tantalus?”

“Tantalus? Is that an author’s name or a book title?”

“I think he lived in ancient Greece.” Soon we were in the reference section thumbing through a thick book of mythology. It said Tantalus killed and cooked his son and served him to the gods, but it didn’t say why. Once the gods figured out what had happened, they restored life to the boy, but hauled Tantalus down to Hades. Then everyone in his family suffered for several generations. How come the blackberry man knew this story? I thought only nice people were smart.

At the lake, swimming lessons were unnecessary—Alex darted in the water with glee. I caught a trout big enough to keep and entertained Alex by capturing fireflies in a mayonnaise jar while also collecting mosquito bites. 

The man at the berry patch faded from my thoughts, like the scratches on my hands, until Monday morning, when Mom reminded me about the jam. I didn’t want to return, even with Alex. He could protect me or at least warn me, but I didn’t want him to get hurt. I figured the blackberry man was long gone and remembered the way the house smelled when jam cooked. 

“Go on, Nan. It’s not so hot yet. I can make the jam this afternoon.”

So off we went, Alex loping along. I parked my bike at the south end of the bushes, as far as possible from where I’d been Friday. Soon mud covered my Keds and sweat trickled around my ribs. Ripe berries were scarce at this spot. Like a flock of crows, weekend pickers had landed here. I stooped, thorns snagging my fingers, to grasp plump, dark berries, the ones that practically fell off. The bucket held a few pints when Alex rushed up. His tail beat against my legs.

I patted between his ears. “It’s too hot to get worked up over a squirrel.”

He ran off and pulled against his leash so that the bushes shook. Then he came back, pleading with his eyes. He dashed off again and started howling. I dropped the bucket and ran after him. To keep him from choking, I unsnapped the leash. He bounded over to a log and started digging under it. He soon had a softball in his mouth and dropped it at my feet, but not to play fetch. Alex returned to the log, frantic, scooping a hole in the sandy soil. He wrestled something out with his teeth and brought it to me. A baseball glove. On the palm were the initials T. Q. written in black Magic Marker. Tommy Quinn. The youngest Quinn, he lived several blocks from me. A third grader. His sister and I were the same age, but had never been friends. Why would Tommy have buried his ball and glove? Alex remained revved up, so I put them in my bike basket and headed home.

On my way, I stopped at Tommy’s house. Mr. Quinn answered the door, which seemed odd for a Monday morning. Before I could say anything, he grabbed the glove from my hands. “Where’d you get this?” 

When I learned Tommy was missing, I told Mr. Quinn about the stranger in the berry patch Friday. He called the police. I described the man and answered their questions. And I had to tell my parents.

“Oh, Nan. Why didn’t you say something about him on Friday?” Mom asked. 

Through my tears I said, “I don’t know,” but I did. 

By Wednesday, the police had located the blackberry man. He was in Indiana. I identified him from a Polaroid snapshot. The policeman asked if I was certain, so I looked carefully. I was sure. I’ve never forgotten his face. But the police said he couldn’t have touched Tommy. The man had been in jail from Saturday night until Monday morning for drunk and disorderly conduct. He was an ex-con; he’d been in prison for armed robbery. Maybe he’d learned about Tantalus there. Maybe he read a lot when he was locked up. Greek mythology didn’t seem standard reading fare for convicts, but why not? It’s loaded with crime and gore and revenge. 

They never found Tommy. For a while, some thought he’d run away. Soon, people were saying they “feared the worst” had happened. Alex and I stayed closer to home the rest of the summer. 

After Tommy disappeared, the whole town aged. People thrive on secrets, and you can’t keep them from having secrets them. It’s the allure of the furtive. The blackberry man had briefly been my secret. I told myself nothing I might have said would have helped Tommy. I saw a stranger in the blackberry bushes. He scared me and my dog. A vague complaint would annoy the police more than alarm them. 

How do you keep children safe? Don’t speak to strangers. All parents tell their kids that, but I talked to the blackberry man. Did Tommy talk to someone, too? 

A week after Tommy vanished, the head of the John Deere factory sent men and machines to plow under those blackberry bushes. Obliterate them. As if that would help. Dad said the factory head had a son Tommy’s age.

The long wound scraped in the dirt gave a new, clear view of the river from the road. By spring, some green had returned. Blackberry plants are hard to kill. Burning or plowing doesn’t work. Poison does, but if you poison the ground, you harm other life—a bad idea, especially alongside a river. Within a few years, the briars were back, thick and tangled. What had been wild and welcome turned into weeds, something unwanted. Even years later, whenever we passed by that place, Alex growled. I looked but never lingered.

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About the author: Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her fiction has appeared in Mslexia, Grievous Angel, KYSO Flash, and other publications.