The berries all looked the same, small and red and speckled. They all smelled the same. They even tasted the same, the grandmother said. She said it was the soil—the soil at the top of the hill was touched by the sun and therefore healthy, so the berries that grew on the bushes up there were fine, while the soil in the ditch at the bottom of the hill was damp and sickly and full of gravel, which is why the berries that grew on the bushes down there were poison.
The children were cousins, all girls. Their mothers were sisters, and every summer their mothers would bring them here, to the house where the grandmother lived, way out on a rutted, grassy road along the river. The mothers had grown up in this house, but now they never stayed for more than a night. They couldn’t, they said. They had things to do. Plus they’d left the fathers home alone—the fathers wouldn’t last long on their own. “Have fun!” they said, and the girls stood on the porch in sandals and cut-off shorts and tank tops, smelling of shea butter and bug spray. Their mothers’ cars clouded the driveway with gravel dust.
“Oh, they’ll be back,” the grandmother said. “They always come back. Come
on inside now.”
The grandmother’s house was tall and yellow and slightly leaning, with a wraparound porch and wooden shutters that were a different color every summer because the girls’ grandfather collected cans of paint and got tired of things being the same. The grandfather didn’t live in the house, but in a little shed out back. The grandmother reminded the girls every summer not to go in there. She said there was something wrong with the air in there. She said if the girls breathed too much of it, they’d turn fat and saggy and smell like spoiled meat, look at their grandfather. And the girls did not go in there. But from the shed’s open door they could see all there was to see, which was an upturned wheelbarrow and a jumble of paint cans and yard tools, plus the narrow shelf where the grandfather slept, plus an arrangement of milk crates and flattened pillows tied together with twine to make a throne. Hanging over it all, back on the far wall, was a framed photograph, a younger version of the grandfather, it seemed, with a wide-brimmed hat and a fish in each hand.
To read the rest of Daniel J. O'Malley's story and more great fiction, purchase Gulf Coast 28.2 here.