Mashed into the ground, collapsed, the weight of the snow had been too much for the already heavily-laden chokecherry bushes, and the first time Liz saw her favorite thicket of them, the one she had been watching all summer and dreaming about harvesting, she wanted to cry. But didn’t. Something must be salvageable, had to be, and she scrambled to figure out what, lifting the bowed branches up out of the mud and fallen leaves and shaking them gently to free them of their clinging layer of debris, disappointed when a good quantity of the damaged berries fell to the ground, as well. Wrong way to go about it, clearly, but she had to somehow get them off the ground, or the bruised fruit would surely be rotting before the day was over. Probably would be, anyway, and soon her hands were stained purple with juice as she stripped cluster after cluster of the fruit from its branches, letting it fall damaged and dripping into her basket. Surely it would be all right; they had just been going to mash most of the cherries, anyway, before drying them… She could not accept the possibility that the crop might be almost entirely a loss, not yet, not the way they had been counting on it, but even as she struggled to save what she could, she knew that such was a distinct possibility. And was something that happened all the time, both in the wild and in domestic agriculture. Except that it was perhaps even more disastrous in agriculture, as people tended to rely more heavily on a single crop or two to see them through, rather than the many scattered food sources that were available to foraging nomads like herself and Einar, one becoming more of a priority if it was a bad year for others, but none being depended on exclusively. Not that such thoughts were much of a comfort as she picked through the ruined remnants of her chokecherry patch, but Liz knew that they probably should be. Einar certainly would have found them so, would have gone on and on about the historical and cultural ramifications of relying on one or two crops, versus hunting and foraging for one’s living, his fascination with the entire process quite taking priority over the fact that they’d just lost what they had hoped would be a significant source of winter food, and she smiled at the thought of him, shook her head and wished she could see it that way. Couldn’t, though. All she saw was the ruined mess there on the ground, her arms purple and sticky up to the elbows with reaching through the bowed branches after clumps of fruit, and she wiped her hands on the yellowing, snow-damp grass beneath, hoisted her rather full basket and started up the hill.
Einar was still scraping and thinning the neck of the elk hide when Liz showed up, made sure he saw her before she approached--he did, had been listening to her climb up through the brush from the lower basin--and set the basket down beside him, awaiting his verdict. Which verdict very nearly involved a good bit of laughter when he saw Liz covered almost entirely in chokecherry juice, leaves and sticks and bits of mashed berry clinging to her clothing and even her hair, of all things, quite a hilarious sight to him and a mighty odd way to go about harvesting berries, too, but then he saw the look in her eyes--frustration and anger mixed with something that far too closely resembled desperation--and did not feel nearly so much like laughing. Which was a good thing.
“They’re ruined. All ruined. The snow was too heavy on them, and they’re all on the ground. The bushes, not just the cherries, and everything’s mashed into the leaves.”
“Those you’ve got there don’t look ruined. Just looks like the storm’s done some of the work of mashing them for us, saved us the work. And we may find that some of the bushed have been less affected, in other areas where the wind and snow did different things. Guess this changes our priorities for today. Elk hide can wait, but these cherries aren’t going to. Will be quite a mess by tomorrow, probably starting to ferment in a day or two, as damp as everything is right now. I’ll get a basket and come help you gather them in. Looks like we’re gonna have a sunny day today, what’s left of it, so maybe we can go ahead and get the ones we gather spread out on rocks to start drying. One of us’ll probably have to do bird duty once we get them out on the rocks, so we’ll fill all the baskets we’ve got, and maybe the deer hide, too, before spreading any to dry.”
“You think it’ll be alright, then? We’ll still get a useful amount?”
“Alright? Well, it is what it is, and we’ll get as many as we can. Harvest isn’t gonna be anything like what we’d hoped for, what we were on track to see, but that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Can’t do anything about the weather, and they were too under-ripe to harvest before these last few days, so we’ll just save what we can, and be real glad we have that honey!”
“Oh, yes! I’m very glad about the honey. It seems like you’ve finally got over the troubles you were having after those stings, too, for the most part…”
“Yep. Sure didn’t like the way my legs kept swelling up several days after that happened, pretty sure my kidneys were having a real hard time dealing with the amount of toxin that ended up in me after all those stings, and the muscle tissue it caused to break down and be released into my bloodstream, but it seems things got sorted out pretty well, in the end. At least I can walk again, seem to be starting to get a little strength back in my legs. Guess I’m just too stubborn to let a little thing like that get me.”
“Yes, I would say so. I’d say some other things, too, but there wouldn’t be much point, would there?”
Einar shrugged, poked at the basket of chokecherries with his toe and carried it into the cabin where it would be safe from scavenging birds--and larger scavengers; it would be quite a shame but not terribly surprising to have a bear wander through in their absence and devour the entire contents of that basket, all the while thinking itself the luckiest bruin alive--and retrieved several other empty ones. Looked like they had their work cut out for them if they wanted to save many of the cherries.
Down to Liz’s chokecherry grove they traveled together, Einar carrying all of the baskets and Liz, slung over her shoulder, the rolled up deer hide, which Einar had thought might be useful if they ended up gathering more fruit than would fit in the baskets, and though Liz had objected that she would hate to have it end up all stained and sticky after getting it tanned so nicely, Einar reassured her that, having been smoked, it would prove quite washable. Might stain quite red from the berry juice--Liz didn’t seem to think the prospect at all a bad thing, for some reason--but would still be functional. Einar’s heart sank a bit when he saw just how badly the crop had been damaged by the weight of all that snow, many of the berries broken open and oozing juice; would have already begun fermenting, had the weather not remained so cool. They were going to have to work quickly, and he got started, soon filling his first basket, hands and arms ending up every bit as purple and sticky as Liz’s had been. It concerned him some, working out there on the edge of the basin-meadow in the middle of the thicket of mashed-down bushes with the nearest good cover--the timbered slope that held their route back up to the cabin--being some fifty yards distant, left him wondering whether they’d be able to cover the distance quickly enough to avoid being spotted, should a small plane or--worse--a helicopter pop up over the basin rim and surprise them, and the prospect kept him on edge and working very quickly, silently, listening. Liz could see that something was wrong, something besides his dismay at the condition of the berries, as he had seemed to accept that quite quickly and easily as the way of things, something they could live with, and finally she asked him.
“Don’t like it, being out here in the open like this. This scrub doesn’t offer much cover anymore, now that it’s all collapsed to the ground, and we’re a good distance from the timber. Haven’t got any real reason to expect the plane back, or another one to come along, but I’ll be a lot happier when we’re back in the timber.
“Well…” she took hand and smeared it across her face, leaving behind a great smear of red-purple, “I think I have a solution. If they show up while we’re out here, and come on so quickly we can’t make it to the timber, we can just lie on our backs in the brush here with our arms crossed over our bodies, and we’ll blend right in with the rest of the mashed berries in this whole mess!”
At which Einar burst into a fit of silent laughter--interesting concept in camouflage, Liz, but I sure hope we don’t end up having to try it--shook his head and got back to work.