That was the year your mother was in the hospital, and you weren’t allowed to visit.
Because you might bring her germs, Aunt Jane said.
What does she have, you asked, and your father said, a polyp.
You tried to picture a polyp. The dictionary said they grew in a cluster, like grapes. You kept seeing a pollywog because of how the word sounded, glottal and froglike.
That was the year your aunt was in charge of Thanksgiving, and she couldn’t cook at all. The turkey was a perfect oval on the plate, a lump of meat without wings or legs. It smelled like a cat food can left open too long. It tasted like baloney. Easy to slice for sandwiches, your aunt said.
You and your brother looked at each other, knowing what would be in your lunchboxes Monday morning, and exactly how soon it would end up in the school cafeteria trash can.
The day before Thanksgiving, when she should have been cooking, your aunt took you and your brother and your cousin to the cranberry factory, an hour away, for a tour. They served whole-berry cranberry sauce in tiny white cups. The sauce was sour and the cranberry skins stuck in your teeth but you liked the story they told about how the cranberries had to go through a bounce test, on a canvas conveyer belt watched by “rows of sharp-eyed women.”
Cranberries that weren’t lively enough, that didn’t bounce, got thrown away. You saved that information for future use.
The word cranberry was a contraction of “crane berry.” Cranes were seen in the cranberry bogs, enjoying the fruits. The tour guide let you try a plain cranberry, but it was so sour you spit it out when no one was looking.
Someone ate a cranberry once and didn’t spit it out. Someone built a seasonal industry on those berries, boiled and jellied.
How many sad cans of cranberry sauce dumped wet and quivering on how many dimpled glass platters, waiting to be sliced like baloney?
Everyone took some, but no one really liked it except that one great-uncle you only saw on Thanksgiving and Christmas, his unevenly shaved cheeks as red as the wobbly tower of cranberry jelly. Just below his eye was a fleck of black, almost the size of a pencil eraser.
It was a piece of coal, he said, from when he worked as a coal miner. It chipped off a cave wall and hit him in the face and stuck there. Or sometimes it was shrapnel from a land mine. A hand grenade. You would never know the truth about that black spot.
The Wampanoag Indians of Cape Cod treated wounds from poisoned arrows with cranberry dressing, said a book you got on the cranberry tour.
Sassamenesh was the Wampanoag word for cranberry. Was there a Wampanoag word for polyp?
Whispering at the grownups’ table grew quiet when you came into the room. Words stayed in the air like steam, almost there but too hard to reach.
After Thanksgiving dinner your aunt drove you and your brother to the hospital and you stood outside in the parking lot, waving up to the fourth-floor window.
Make sure you smile, your aunt said. You don’t want your mom to see any sad faces!
You looked up and tried to imagine you saw a face in that window, that it didn’t just reflect back at you, shiny and black.
You imagined a lively cranberry bouncing off the line, embedding a shard of itself in your face, just under the eye. You’d carry that cranberry-colored scar forever. Children would ask you about it when you were old and you’d tell them stories about how it got there. A different story, every time.
Kathryn Kulpa is a Rhode Island-born writer and editor with work published in Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and 100 Word Story. She makes a mean cranberry-apple pie.