by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

It’s a neutral day.
No sky and no atmosphere.
No emotions and no oxygen.
And no memory. And no future
beyond the plane’s broad wing.

Yet: a scissor-flash of sun
and I’m seeing again sun
beating on the strawberry patch
of my grandfather’s lost farm
as a warning pulse beats
on the underside of an eye.

Here I am kneeling in sunshine. Sunshine beating
on my bare head. None of us wore hats. On my grand-
father’s farm picking strawberries. Filling quart
baskets. Up and down the rows filling quart baskets.
ten cents a quart. Thirteen years old. Quick, deft
motions of my stained fingers. Hypnotic. Dreamy.
In stained work-clothes kneeling. In sunshine kneeling.
You pick, you reach, you reach farther, an ache between
the shoulder blades like a nail entering flesh so you
know it’s time to shift your knees, to inch forward
smelling your heated body. Pulsebeat, pain. Pulse-
beat, pain. In the next row, Linda Birkenhead and
Ginny Dunston, two older girls, are picking. Jesus,
I hate strawberries! Could puke, strawberries! Linda’s
loud hoarse voice. We’re laughing, calling to one
another, you’d think our throats would be scratched
by now, shrieking with laughter, and it’s only 10 A.M.
and we started at 7 A.M. and we’re exhausted, we’re dead,
except noisy and giggling in the shimmering heat
of June in my grandfather’s strawberry patch where rows
go on forever no beginning no end. Pulsebeat,
pain. Yet I believe I will live forever.

True pain, like grief, is for solitude only.
Not picking strawberries, ten cents a quart,
with Linda and Ginny. Not picking strawberries,
row after row, no stems, no leaves, cobwebs sticky
on my fingers in shimmering heat in June these
endless rows on my grandfather’s farm.
Only last year, these girls tormented me.
At school, they teased and chased me.
Older boys twined their fingers in my hair, why?
Dirty fingers in my hair and when I cried,
they laughed, why? First the pulsebeat, then
the pain.

Heat-haze of summer, the world’s smiling.
Unless it’s weak eyes needing glasses.
That year I’d begun to wonder how do we come
to an accurate knowledge of ourselves
my question to bear through life, unanswered.
Picking strawberries, I’m the fastest, frantic
to finish a row careless as in a race, always
to be the first, and careless, bruising fruit,
picking stems, leaves, coming to abhor the touch
of strawberries, how seeds are stippled
in the flesh, rough as a cat’s tongue and some
of the strawberries are weirdly shaped, greeny-
white and never to ripen, other strawberries
are soft-rotted from the inside, female fruit
leaking watery-runny red juice. Within hours,
a box can go bad. My grandfather hated straw-
berries, so perishable, not like apples, pears,
quince, cherries, a strawberry ripening
is a strawberry close to rot.

Kneeling in sunshine. Sunshine beating
on my bare head. And my friends Linda nd Ginny.
Who’d been so cruel. They’d hated me at school,
maybe I was too fast with my answers, maybe
too smart, and too young, now I’m like the others
dumb and suntanned and my small breasts hard
as green pears and my fingers groping quick
in the strawberry plants blinking away pain,
swallowing down nausea, no I wasn’t going to think
of how they’d tormented me, chased me, jeering
pelted me with horse chestnuts, clumps of mud,
chased me through cornfields on the Tonawanda Creek
but I’d outrun them so it was a game,
yes probably it was a game, laughing, shouting,
maybe a sign of crude liking so reasonably I might
tell myself They don’t mean harm. Not like, poking
me with an elbow in the eye, they’d mean to gouge
out the eye. For there’d come, unexpected, that day
last September, returning to school and the oldest
Birkenhead girl Linda stared at me, and smiled, and
later there was Ginny Dunston and her brother, and
others, so suddenly it was O.K. Why, don’t ask,
if the world’s suddenly O.K. don’t ask, don’t inquire
into motives for there are no motives ofr maybe
it was somthing simple: I’d grown over the summer,
I was lanky, funny, tall and suntanned and tough
and fast as ever except now it was O.K. which is why
kneeling in sunshine picking strawberries for ten cents
a quart I’m happy. I love my friends, that’s all
you want at thirteen but it’s a gift you don’t
always get. The sky is a great mirror
mirroring all-time-to-come.

Always I’ll remember how suddenly meanness
turned sweet. What ripened, and wasn’t rot.
How grateful, and how quick to smile, laugh-
ing like the others in the shimmering heat
of June, happy. Those summers of no beginnings
and no ends and one day a biographer will note
below a photograph Oates lived on her grandfather’s
farm until the age of 18. She believed she was happy.

Last updated September 26, 2022