Belle ran off, as soon as the car pulled into a spot near the field. Her wispy hair came lose from the haphazard braid her mom had done up between breakfast bites and her incessant wiggling. I tried to follow her, worried she might disappear into the strawberry bushes, lined up neatly into rows. The field stretched out as far and wide as our eyes could see, and Belle had just turned four a few days ago.
Her mom stepped out of the car slowly, navigating her six month pregnant belly among the steeling wheels, the door jam and her heavy backpack. She stood on the edge of the field, all five foot four of her, and set down her loads. With one hand on her waist, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes, she spotted Belle somewhere bobbing up and down through the field.
"STOP! Belle, stop right there where you are!" she shouted through hands cupped around her mouth, her voice bellowed through the field.
Belle appeared a few seconds later, not even losing a beat in her breath. "Yes, mama? What is it?"
"You can't just run off like that. We need to go together. Stay with me you hear?"
"But, can I just-"
"No, I don't want you to get lost. And I can't chase after you any more or I will hurt your baby brother here. You want that?"
Belle paused for a hard moment of thinking with her a finger tapping onto her cheeks. Three taps later she shook her head with only a slight air of reluctance.
"Good. Now here is your bucket. Put your strawberry into the bucket, not in your mouth Okay?"
"O-okay. Can I go now?"
"If you go slowly..."
Before Jocelyn's sentence ended, Belle had flown away again, like a butterfly, the hem of her orange dress fluttering in the wind. She stayed slow this time, and I followed behind. She paused when she spotted one sprinkled with berries, bending down, her face tucking into the leaves, her lips puckering, as if ready to kiss the strawberry prince inside. But she was no fairy princess, her mom had chosen the dress, and it got in the way of running and threading through strawberry bushes. So she flipped up its hem and tucked on edge into the pair of blue shorts she wore underneath. Her mom sighs, shaking her head. Compromises, she had told me that time and again.
With her clothes in place, she bent down again, reaching into one of the branch with berries, and pulled hard. It didn't give, so she stepped back, holding onto it with all her might, poised as a young fisher girl pulling out her prized catch. The berry stayed with its branch and the branch stayed with its bush and the bush, rooted firmly into the soil, refused to relent. So Belle tugged harder, grabbing forward onto the sinewy stems with another hand, shaking it about. Then she grabbed firmly with both hands, legs bent and foot pressed hard into the ridge, leaning back and pulling until her legs shook, her cheeks beet red, and we all heard the unmistakable sound of branches breaking.
Before I could say STOP, she stood before me with her hand held high, reeking of strawberries, soil and victory.
Belle: 1, Strawberry: 0
The berry had been squished into mesh so juices ran down her arm, the branch wrapped around it long and loose, limp in the light breeze and her chubby hand.
The bush looked like a defeated solider, meditating on its survival of that ancient battle between man and nature, or girl and bush. The aftermath looked sad - some of its top roots exposed, thin and white lines crying through the soil; its leaves and berries strewn about into the loosened soil, tears of a vapid loser. NO fruit was left for the picking, not on this one anyway, not after all that ugly fighting.
I reached down slowly, giving allowance to rest for my old body, those shattered knees might buckle any moment now from the strain of standing, my cane having sunk deep into the soft soil around my feet. What was left of me from the two wars - Korean and Vietnam - looked no better than the remains of the bush weeping next door.
"Grandpa?" She looked up at me with angelic eyes filled with mischief and pride.
"Do we have a bigger bucket?"