Only Granny Shura, a cantankerous old biddy with a sharp, spiky tongue that made her nobody’s favorite, still went out alone, for both the raspberries and the wild herbs that should only be gathered after the Feast of John the Baptist. With her old-school ways, she didn’t hold with frivolous attire. She also didn’t think much of mosquitoes, so she swaddled herself up, with a sweater jacket over a flannel shirt and on top of that, a canvas raincoat when it was threatening rain, all of which made her look like something between a mossy hillock and a fir tree withered from the roots up.
The young lasses, both married and single, roamed around the raspberry patches in a cheerful, garish flock, wearing light, gaudy sundresses and eye-popping headscarves that butterflies would settle on. But then there were the rubber boots, always the rubber boots, and that was nothing to laugh at, what with the marshy soil over here and the slithery snakes over there. They scattered across the cleared spots like a merry flight of birds, roaring with laughter and yelling to each other, or they’d suddenly strike up a song – all at once, without a word spoken – and it was always about love gone dismally wrong.
The raspberry baskets were willow or bast, with an open weave so the berries wouldn’t get squashed. The girls would brace the canes against their fronts and with quick fingers would strip the berries, trying to not to let any that were overripe, or crushed, or had a beetle along for the ride get into their baskets. The gorgeous Nyurka, the village’s number one cut-up, could pop a berry in her mouth and needle the girl next to her and sing along all at the same time.
And on they pressed, because the berries seemed bigger and juicier the deeper in they went, plus they could grab up a few of the cloudberries that trailed over the mossy mounds, and blackberries too, still unripe by July and puckery in the mouth. They gradually wandered farther away from each other, hallooing back and forth, quietly at first and then less often, and only when one of them was all alone by a raspberry patch that bordered on a dense thicket, when the wind was bending the pine branches overhead, did the desperate wailing begin: “N-i-i-inka? Mashka! Mashka! Nyurka! Have you seen Valentina? No? Stay still, Mash, I’m coming your way. Stay still, I can’t see a blessed thing!”
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