We woke up at six to beat the others to the bushes. Grandmother and I were wobbling down the tracks, not yet fully awake. Most of the houses we passed along the way were still unlit. Grandma says not to trust the dark, or the neighbours. “For all we know,” she says, “they could already be in the forest or having breakfast in the dark.” Sometimes I believe she’s paranoid. Then again, she has every right to be.
Grandma also believes the key to success is to make as little noise as possible. That advice works for more than just collecting the best berries. Once, when mum and dad where yelling like monkeys, I just slipped out of the house. Much like a burglar trying to escape. When hours later I sneaked back in, nobody had noticed I’d been gone.
This morning I try to be extra quiet because it’s an important day. It’s the first day of the blueberry season and the more berries we collect now, the more wood we’ll have for winter. You see, grandmother sells jam and marmalade to the tourists on the Christmas market in Stockholm. “Fröken Marmelad” is how she calls herself, Miss Marmalade.From the money she earns, she buys wine, wood and wool. “All you need to get through the winter,” Grandma says. But I always see her eating stew, so I know that’s not true.
There’s a good reason I’m allowed to join today, perhaps two. The first good is reason is that I never squeeze too hard. If you squeeze the blackberries too hard the juices get stuck in the space between your fingers. A waste of jam, Grandma would say. But that won’t happen with my hands. My hands are froglike; there are webs between my fingers. Grandma often shakes her head when she looks at them. It is only during blackberry season she can’t stop telling me I received a gift from God. That’s because I can carry four or five extra blackberries in each hand. There is space for one in each web. Some days I even manage to get two between my thumb and index finger. I believe that is the second good reason I’m allowed to join.
When we get to the secret blueberry spot nobody’s there. “We beat them,” Grandma says. “Now don’t waste time and let’s pick those blue bastards.”
One by one we pick the berries and gently place them in the baskets. For every fifty blueberries I pick, I get one for myself. It’s my little secret and I have to chew without Grandma noticing. She would surely mention that it’s a waste of jam, again.
“Next time you should bring your friends to help,” Grandma says. She waves her blue hands up in the air as if to bid the blueberries to magically fall off and save us some time. They don’t even wobble. I just nod.
Grandma doesn’t know that – unlike picking blueberries – friendship is difficult when you’re my age. Not that I hope it will get better when I’m older. Mum and dad hardly ever have friends joining for dinner. And it’s not that they are unfriendly or have froglike hands like me. And for Grandma it is easy, because when you’re old you have grandchildren. Who needs friends when you have those?
We pick and pick and by the time we’ve almost filled our two large baskets, the others arrive. Old man Dave is there and Laura’s mom. They also brought two people I don’t know. “Hi Laura’s mom! Where’s Laura?” I ask. Laura’s mom probably didn’t hear me because nobody answers. Then old man Dave turns to Grandma and almost spits in one of our baskets.
“A waste of spit, Dave. Such a waste,” Grandma says. I laugh. Nobody else finds it funny, but I don’t mind. Old man Dave looks at the two filled baskets again. “A waste of blueberries, one might say.”
“And why’s that?”
“ It’s common knowledge that people like you can’t make a proper jam.” Dave laughs. Laura’s mom and the two strangers laugh too. This time, I don’t understand what’s so funny.
“People like me?” Grandma says. Now she’s laughing too.
Old man Dave says something about stealing their blueberries and that it is unfair to wake up before the sun does. I never knew that it was a rule, or that they owned the blueberries. During all of this, Laura’s mom waves her arms as if trying to chase away some animal. And Grandma just stands there, proud like a statue.
Now Laura’s mom starts to shout. “Just go! And take that freak of a child with you.”
Grandma hesitates but then pulls me away from the bushes onto the track. In movies and stories this is where people raise their voice, pull a gun or lose their temper. But in my life, Grandma’s eyes get all wet as we silently walk away.
Grandma walks really fast, so I almost have to run not to be left behind. It is really hard to run with a basket full of…I forgot them. The blueberries. Now I start to cry. “We have to get back, Grandma. The blueberries. The wine and wood.” Grandma turns towards me and takes my hand. “You don’t need that much wood for chicken stew, we’ll be fine.” I’m not sure if I believe her. But as soon as we get home she makes me hot chocolate and I calm down a bit. With my eyes I follow her through the kitchen; the world smells of fruit and sugar. “Why did they call us different?” I ask. “I always thought they didn’t like me because of my frog-hands, but you don’t have them, Grandma.”
Grandma stops stirring with the ladle, but she doesn’t turn around. She stares at the fruit and sugar and it feels like a really long time before she answers.
“…Because some people forget that being different can sometimes mean you’ll be able to carry a few extra berries.”