Creative Nonfiction: Picking Elderberries by Erin Calabria

We aren’t sure the place will ever sell. We come with bowls and scissors, my mother, my brother, and I. Question mark butterflies wink in the light. The house slumps among weeds.

We knew the family once, but they’re all gone now. First the lacrosse player son—a secret arrhythmia that stumbled his heart while he slept in his dorm room at Dartmouth. Decades later, both parents—multiple sclerosis, cancer—lost within months of each other, their remaining son glimpsed in town for services before vanishing again up north.

I am also here only briefly, only visiting home, and I let myself get talked into a drive to check the elder trees growing by the pond just past the house. They’ve taken root there in the moss and slime, berries gleaming full and dark from drinking such lush decay.

When I was little, we brought nets and buckets to catch tadpoles here in spring. My mother was friends with the gardener who tended the pond, a man I can only remember now as a pair of wire glasses and cloud-white hair. He had woven the gardens with paths and gazebos—intricate spaces perfect for hide and seek, for daydreams. The water had been clear back then, fringed with frogsong and irises.

Below a footbridge now, my brother eases out onto algae-slick stone to reach the towering shrubs. He snips off heavy clusters, handing them down to my mother and me. I repress the urge to grab hold of his pant leg, to anchor him away from the muck.

Instead, I picture the gardener’s plantings elsewhere in town. Swaths of narcissus and daffodil. Ornamental trees dwindled into the surrounding woods—a kind of reverse shakkei, the Japanese practice of “borrowing landscape.” Rather than drawing the natural world into the garden, he blurred the garden out into the wild, so that long after he was gone, we still chanced upon bulbs and Chinese lanterns glowing among the trees and knew they were his. The blossoming footprints of a ghost.

Stretching further into the leaves, my brother cuts and cuts, juice running down his wrist. My mother and I drop bunch after bunch into the bowls like dark chandeliers.

I am here and not here. I can see and not see a boy grinning under a froth of brown hair. A woman climbing hills with double canes. A man beside her tilting with each step. And a pond washed clean of duckweed, glittering in the sun.

Bowls filled to the brim, we walk back to the car. Behind us, the house sags. The butterflies shimmer. Later in the kitchen, we strig the berries from their stems, and my mother cooks them long and low on the stove for cordial and preserves.

I leave home again before I can try them. I tell myself it’s just one more thing among so many that, through every leaving, are either lost to me or to which I become lost. And maybe it’s just as well. I’m not sure I could ever consume those berries without tasting some hint of ruin, of rot. Unless that would just be the taste of my own body—an undertone otherwise ignored, heightened by sudden recognition: an echo of ripeness, harvest, dark.

The death rooted in each of us from which we can’t help but grow.

Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She is a co-founding editor at Empty House Press, which publishes writing about home, place, and memory. You can read more of her work in Milk Candy ReviewLongleaf ReviewPithead Chapel, and other places.

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