Thornberry Boy

The thornberry was cold and messy and sharp. I knew I shouldn’t have eaten it. But it was just sitting there, in my grandmother’s wicker basket, inviting me to gobble it down.

It was originally destined for thornberry jam. My grandmother would make batches of the stuff come summer and we’d have it on everything—toast, porridge, smeared on top of crumpets and tucked lovingly into scones. I loved thornberry jam. Gran would boil the thornberries with sugar in a big copper pot until the whole house was heavy with the sticky smell of summer fruit; then she’d scoop the wonderful puce gloop into jars and store them on a special shelf in the pantry. I’d eaten lots of thornberry jam before, but I’d never eaten one whole. Not once. Not ever.

Gran would often take us thornberry picking along the hedgerows that lined the lanes near our farm, or in the east field where they grew wild and untended, their long thorny tendrils creeping through the grass, or along the riverbank, where we were told not to pick any at ankle level because that’s where dogs had done their number ones. And whenever we did, Gran would say in a voice shrill and commanding like an admiral:

“No sneakin’ any thornberries when I’m not lookin’. I’ll know if you ‘ave, and then you’ll be up to yer necks in trouble.”

Then she would give us a look with her old eyes that seemed to wriggle right into the darkest and most secret parts of our childish brains, and we would know that she was right, that she would know everything, our crimes and our desires and our dreams. Gran was that type of person. If she weren’t my grandmother, I’d have thought she was a witch.

But on that day, I just couldn’t resist. It was sitting there in the basket, a forgotten thornberry, alone and unwanted. At first I felt sorry for it. “You poor thing,” I thought. “Everyone’s forgotten about you.” And, as the youngest in the family I felt a sort of empathy with it, a strange kinship—boy and berry, alone. But soon that empathy turned to entitlement. I deserved that thornberry. And it was just one. One that would otherwise go to waste.

She won’t find out, the thornberry seemed to whisper to me. And despite Gran’s piercing stare and her crow-like nose that could sniff out a lie faster than a fox could sniff out a chicken, I believed it. I knew she wouldn’t. With the absolute, immutable certainty of youth, the type that tells you there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, and a bogeyman under the bed, and that Father Christmas is real, I knew that she would never find out.

So, with a quick glance towards the kitchen door to make sure there was no one there to bear witness, I stuffed my little hand into the basket, closed my fingers around the thornberry, and, clutching it as tenderly as if it were a swallow’s egg, I moved it to my mouth and greedily stuffed it in.

Bad boy. You’re a bad boy. But that thought vanished as soon as my teeth popped the berry’s tender skin, and the juices came gushing out, and any guilt was crushed like the poor kid at the bottom of a pile-on.

I smacked my lips and felt very pleased with myself.

Then my sister came in.

“You’ve been sneaking thornberries,” she said.

I shook my head. Not really in denial, but in shame. Jane was five years older than me. Practically a grown-up in my eyes.

“Liar.” She grabbed my hands and turned them palm up in hers; there, on my right thumb, a horrible wine-coloured stain—my crime, painted on my hands. If I had been older, I’d have probably thought all sorts of spiteful things, raged against Jane and her snooping, and the humiliation of being so easily outdone. But I was only six, and skinny, and weak. And my thoughts were mostly feelings. And this feeling was a rotten one.

“How many?” she demanded. “How many?”

“J-just one, Jane,” I managed through a lot of sniffling and sobbing. “Please don’t tell Gran.”

“Don’t tell Gran? No, we’ve got to.”

I started to panic. “B-but . . . I wuh-won’t, I wuh-won’t do it again. I promise. I’m s-sorry. Please don’t tell Gran,” I blubbed.

“I’m not telling her to be spiteful, stupid,” Jane snapped. “We’ve got to tell her so she can stop it from happening. The bad thing.”

“Wuh-what bad thing?”

“The bad thing that happens if you eat raw thornberries.”

Fear stung the back of my throat, tasting of acid and metal. I began to sweat and felt my face flush, felt the blood gushing into my cheeks just as the juice of the thornberry had gushed into my mouth. I tried to speak, but my mouth had gone dry, and my tongue was like an old carpet, ragged and chewed up. Some sound must have escaped though, because my sister crouched down so that her head was level with mine. She held my hands and looked me right in the eyes.

“What happens is the seeds grow in your stomach. They sprout and grow and the brambles run right through your veins, thorns and all, until they burst from your fingertips, and the tips of your toes, and your mouth and ears and eyes and your nose. They spread through every inch of you, until you turn into a thornberry bush. Why do you think Gran only lets us eat thornberries in jam? The boiling kills the seeds, see?”

I felt my body quake—a giant lurching, as if my organs had been twisted up tight and then let go. I clutched my stomach.

Jane bit her lip. “It’s starting,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to start so fast.”

“I want Gran,” I bawled. “Where’s Gran?”

“There’s no time,” Jane said. Now she was panicking. “Gran went out. She said she’d be about an hour. I’m supposed to look after you until she gets back . . .” She began chewing the ends of her pigtails.

“It’s all right, though. It’s all right. Gran told me how to stop it. Um . . . um . . . it was something to do with hemlock. An infusion of hemlock with dandelion and gypsywort”—she stopped for a moment to think—”and . . . and . . . salamander tail, that’s it.” She grabbed a chair and pushed it towards the far wall of the kitchen where there were a set of high shelves. She clambered onto it and began rummaging through the jars that Gran kept on the top shelf. Those jars were off limits. Even I knew that.

Jane pulled down one of the jars. On the label, in Gran’s old-fashioned cursive, was the word “Hemlock”. Jane held up the jar and looked through the bottom. It was empty.

“Damn,” I heard her mutter. I’d never heard her swear before. It shocked me. “I’ll have to gather some more,” she said. “I think I saw some behind the barn. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

She ran out, leaving me standing in the middle of the kitchen clutching my belly. The cramps in my stomach were getting worse now. I could feel something thorny in the pit of my belly. Something clawing, gripping, with tiny needles.

A few minutes later, Jane returned with an uprooted plant in her hand. The flowers were small and white like carrot flowers, and its leaves were feathery like parsley.

Jane quickly plucked off three leaves. “Any more and it’ll kill you,” she said, throwing the leaves into a pot before holding it under the tap for a few seconds and shoving it onto the stove to boil. Then she moved the chair over to another corner, where from one of the ceiling beams hung several bunches of dried herbs. I knew about some of the herbs, like rosemary, and lavender, but there were others hanging there too. Others that I didn’t know the names of.

She plucked a couple of dried dandelions from one of the bunches and crushed them into the pot, rubbing them between her fingers as she did so. Then she took another sprig from a bunch of what looked like dead stinging nettles, and threw that in too. The water in the pot turned dark and cloudy, and an acrid smell hit me. She waited a moment, then began adding more sprigs bit by bit.

“Go and fetch Gran’s stick,” she said, turning to me. “The black one.”

Without saying a word I stumbled to the hall. There, in a basket by the door, was Gran’s black stick. It was made of ebony, she’d told me once, and it was about as tall as I was. I grabbed it and went back to the kitchen, quicker than I’d left. Holding the stick made me feel better.

“Thanks,” Jane said, snatching it from me. She moved the chair over to the stove, stood on it, and, carefully, began to stir the concoction.

I’d never seen Jane behave in this way before. She seemed so wise, so old, so capable. It surprised me. Her movements were quick and exact, expert even, at least to my six-year-old eyes. I began to feel safe again, like I felt when I’d grabbed Gran’s stick. Like things were being handled. Like I was being taken care of.

“How do you know all this?” I finally felt brave enough to ask.

“Gran taught me.”

“Why didn’t she teach me any of it?”

“Gran says it’s not for boys to know. Gran says boys are thick as clotted cream and about as useful in a fix. Fetch me the strainer from that cupboard,” she added. “And a mug.”

I did so.

The liquid in the pot began frothing, and Jane stopped stirring. She hopped down from the chair and positioned the strainer; then she slowly tipped the potion into the mug.

“You’ve got to drink this all down,” she said. “Every last drop.”

“It smells horrible,” I said, wincing as the vapour scratched at my eyes.

“I know. But you’ve got to.”

I took the mug and, holding my nose with my left hand, drained its contents. It took me three tries, but I did it. I was very proud of myself, and then I felt the burning in my belly. I began to grunt and groan like the pigs do when they’re unhappy. I doubled over. “Oh, oh, oh, oh!” I cried. “It hurts! Jane, it hurts!”

“It’s supposed to. It’s killing the bramble. You might want to go to the toilet, too,” she said. “It’s going to flush it out when it’s done burning it up.”

She was right. Suddenly my stomach felt very heavy, and painful, like I had colic. I needed to go!

Jane was waiting for me when I came out of the bathroom.

“Did it work, do you think?” I asked. “Am I going to be OK?”

“I think so,” she said. “It’s tricky. You’ve got to get the dosage just right. Just enough to kill the plant, and not so much that it’ll kill the host—that’s you.”

I didn’t like being called a “host” very much, but I didn’t talk back. I clutched Jane’s hand.

Before long, we heard the latch being lifted on the back door. It was Gran.

“Right,” said Jane. “Remember, not a peep. Or we’ll both be in trouble.”

I didn’t say a word.

That night I had trouble sleeping.

I had terrible pins and needles in my arms and legs. No matter how many times I changed my position, they just wouldn’t go away. It felt like ants were crawling through my veins. I didn’t worry about it too much, though. I put it down to growing cramps. And after a while I must have dropped off because the next thing I knew it was morning and I was looking at a window full of sunlight.

I blinked and rubbed my eyes. I got out of bed and went over to the small sky-blue hand basin set into the wall next to the window. I turned on the hot-water tap and watched as the water slowly inched up the side of the basin. When it was full, I dipped my hands into the bowl and splashed a handful of water onto my face. Then I began to scrub. And as I did so I felt a sharp pain on my cheek.

“Ouch!” I cried out. I looked into the little mirror hanging above the basin. On my right cheek, little droplets of blood, like redcurrants, began to appear. I looked at my nails, they had been neatly clipped by my mother just a few days ago. Then I noticed something strange about the index finger of my right hand. Just below the neatly clipped nail, pointing through the flesh, was the sharp tip of a thorn.

My heart began pounding in my chest, faster and faster. And as it did so, it hurt. It hurt! Like it was being squeezed by a serpent made of barbed wire.

The pins and needles were back. But instead of feeling soft and numb, my limbs felt hard and wooden.

“Jane!” I cried out. “Jane! Ah-ah-ah-ah! Jane!” Then I began to scratch. My skin felt prickly, hot and prickly, and I was sweating again, just as I had been the night before.’

The door to my little room burst open, and Jane came rushing in.

“Look!” I yelled at her, pointing my index finger in her face. “Look! Look!”

She looked. Then she saw. And her breath caught in her throat.

“Am I . . . am I dying?” I asked her.

She shifted her gaze from my finger to my eyes—my red, teary eyes—and said, “No, you’re not dying.” But there was no reassuring smile or oh-you-silly-child chuckle. Jane’s face was dark and serious, as if heavy clouds had gathered there and blocked out all the sunlight.

“We’d better tell Gran,” she said at last. “I must. . . I must have got it wrong. I didn’t kill it. And now it’s too late. Now it’s spread too far.” Her voice was blunt and without feeling, a hopeless voice. Her face sagged and she looked old again, but no longer wise. She looked old and tired.

I don’t remember how I reacted to what she told me. Maybe I fainted. Maybe I went into hysterics. Sometimes the mind blocks out things like that. It’s a survival mechanism, I think. It’s not good for you to remember yourself in that way, pitiful and helpless and grotesque.

The next thing I do remember is the east field: The blackbirds and the thrushes singing in hedges nearby; the shadow of the big beech tree on the long grass, almost ready for the hay harvest; the buzz of insects; the heat of the sun; my feet stuck in the ground, unable to move, as if I were waist-deep in a bog; my fingers, long jagged tendrils scratching the ground; my chest, a thick tangle of brambles; and my heart, still beating behind a twisting ribcage of thorns.


“Thornberry Boy” © 2016 by Dafydd McKimm. All rights reserved.

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