I remembering writing this story in a day or two when I was an undergraduate, though I don’t think it ever had an audience beyond the university’s creative writing workshop. These were supremely awkward gatherings, proof if ever it was needed that writers tend to be people who have trouble with social interaction. The story was inspired by the Seamus Heaney poem of the same title, as opposed to the song recorded by among others Billie Holliday, and my favourite, Nina Simone.
We have come from many countries to pick strawberries beside this bay on the western edge of the Danish mainland. Not an obviously promising place for me to make myself part of the youth community of Europe. The bay is blotched and freckled with islands, small and large. You don’t feel like you’re on the coast, the islands shut you in like a topsoil layer from the sea’s expanse. But I can live with that. There are strawberries to be picked, and students have come to do the work cheaply. This enclosed part of a peripheral peninsula is suddenly the honey-bee hive I have been waiting for so long to join.
I am so happy these first days with the group. I wake up with the dawn in the amazing village of tents. ( I like the word and run around singing in a whisper tent tent tent tent tent tent tent , pointing at each as I weave in and out the different coloured canvases. This is before anyone else is up.)
Next I go to check the secret place in the sand-dunes where I have hidden the egg. There I compose and make myself ready for the day.
I go out with the early birds to pick at half eight while it is still cool. We are paid by weight and the rate is not generous. There are more than fifty of us and we disperse to all corners of the strawberry fields to minimise competition. Of course some people are competitive and pick at speed, counting every filled punnet, not eating a single one. I try to go with the smiling chirpy ones, especially the girls. I have waited so many years for this company I am not going to waste it with people in busy quiet lines like ants.
At midday we eat. The first day in the canteen cabin I ate the hot potato mash – an unwise move. My old insides rebelled and I had to run away to the sand-dunes. The good thing was that everybody laughed and now they recognise me. But from now on I nourish myself apart.
We go back to picking until 3. I listen and try to join in the conversations. After I play in the mass football game. I always want to be the goalkeeper and that makes me popular also. I am fearless and dive to save shots even though the ground is hard – much, much harder than I am used to. A boy from Scotland said to me ‘You’re a legend, pal’. ‘I know’, I replied. He laughed and rubbed the back of my scarf-protected neck. Even though I don’t like to be touched there I didn’t say anything, only smiled at him.
Later we sit outside in little circles round a fire while the day turns to evening. Some people have guitars and some have little drums shaped like hourglasses. I like best the songs of an Italian boy named Fabrizio, though I don’t understand them and am too shy to ask the meaning. Most people gravitate to their own language groups and the first night I sat with some English, Scottish, Dutch, and a non-Gaelic Irish. (there is no-one who shares my mother tongue). There were some songs, many jokes, and a huge volume of beer consumed, but I did not succeed in feeling part of the group. I was straining too hard to find a point of entry into the conversation, so I could not relax and be myself. From now on I spend more time listening to the songs of Fabrizio and digging for possible meanings in my head. I also move between the groups, so I am not like a felled and flaking log for too long in the same place.
‘I am a very contradictory personality’. That is what Robbie, the Scottish boy who called me a legend, said about me today, as we lay down together exhausted after the battle.
I started it. I was frustrated that things weren’t going the way I wanted them to. People seemed to have developed little groups and I wasn’t in one. After nourishment (me alone in my hiding place, coveting the egg too much) most people went back to picking. I was still hungry and I couldn’t stop eating the strawberries. Each one seemed as small as a single frogspawn.
‘Can’t you stop bloody eating?’ It was a girl I hadn’t seen, who was picking in the row opposite me. ‘If you eat them all it just makes it harder for the rest of us to find ones to pick.’
I was upset and angry and without thinking what I was doing I threw a huge soft berry at her face. It hit her right in the centre of the forehead, spurting juice into her eyes and running down her nose.
‘Right, that’s it,’ she said. She leapt over the plants and ran at me and I ducked out the way, but she bent down and picked handfuls out of my basket, launching them at me. I fell to the ground and lay on my back while she pelted me. She was severely angry. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. She threw under-ripe fruits with all her force, stinging me like bees. Then she dumped the remains of my basket on top of me. She was gasping and pretending not to laugh.
‘This is okay,’ I said. ‘I am okay.’
‘That’s wonderful’ she said. ‘I’m over the moon for you. Now who shall we get next?’
‘We are the strawberry guerrillas’, she announced. ‘Our weapon is surprise.’ But soon we were no longer surprising people and a full scale battle was underway. Robbie fought alongside me when he learned I had started it all.
‘I don’t quite get you,’ he said, as we crouched behind the plants. ‘I had you down as a shy one, and then what do you do? You go and fling a fat strawberry into the face of the hottest girl here. You’re crazy.’
‘I have always been different,’ I admitted.
It’s later now and the fires are burning and Fabrizio is playing guitar. An Icelandic girl is singing in a voice that reminds me of my mother’s lullabies. I find I do not need to know the meaning of her language. People are passing round a hot concoction containing ergot, a fungus with hallucinogenic properties that grows with barley. I have been telling people how it was used in the ancient rituals to anoint the brain for contact with the spirit world.
‘He knows shit, this boy.’ Robbie says to the others. ‘He’s a guru.’ I have not heard this word but I like it. It is a word to hoard and beat your chest with when life forsakes you. There is a tap on my shoulder, and somehow I know without turning it is her.
Her appearance is at once strange but familiar, as though rooted in some deep-seamed memory. Her dark hair is shorn to a crop underneath a bobbing cap that rescues her from appearing like a criminal.
‘Hello,’ she says.
‘Have you got any bruises from the strawberry war?’
‘No. I’m okay.’
I fiddle with my scarf nervously. I am conscious that I have said that before. I need to be more expansive, yet not scare her away.
‘Do you ever read a poem or a story and feel like you are reading about yourself and that your life is being decided by someone else?’ I ask after a deep breath.
She takes a sip from the mug she is holding, then spits and pours the contents away onto the ground behind her.
‘Yes, only I tell myself it is me who is deciding what goes in the poem. I’m the one who’s alive’
You are very lively.’
‘Lively! I’m sure you can find a better compliment than that. You’re not as dumb as you seem are you. You throw yourself in the dirt and run around playing the mad fool, but inside you’re wriggling with words. I can see that, though there’s something else I can’t see.’
‘Maybe you don’t want to know everything about me. But here is a better compliment. (I had actually composed it earlier) You are like the aurora borealis burned underneath my eyelids when I dream.’
‘I expected you to come out with something like that. Your type always do.’
‘Not that it’s bad,’ she says, sensing my disappointment. ‘It’s just, don’t you think you might be seeing in me only the image you want to see?’
I argue with her playfully, and then we talk about poetry, the way word sounds can be rolled over and over until they lose all their meaning and it’s like sucking on a fruit stone. She has heard of my most famous poem-master. ‘He is taught in schools’, she tells me. We turn our tongues to crafting spontaneous verse couplets, hers tending to be witty epigrams about our fellow pickers, mine sacrilegious inversions of the ancient rites. She gives me funny looks, but not concerned ones. I am encouraged to reveal more of myself. I long to drag her away to see the egg, but fortunately am sound of mind enough to realise that she is not yet prepared. There will be time, I tell myself. But shortly after she goes away and I am alone again.
It is night and the tent cluster is filled with sleepers. I cannot sleep. I have an overwhelming compulsion to check on the egg. I cannot allow it to hatch out of my control and wreak its ruin on all my new, young tribe. I am still excited by the thought of them all petrified, mouths in mid-gape, but now I have hope it does not have to be like that. She could un-lonesome me, but I will have to tread carefully.
I move soundlessly over the grass past the darkened canvases and up the lip to where the dunes start. Running along parallel to the coast, my bare legs brushing the marram and the reed grasses, I breathe the wet wind. It will rain tomorrow. I reach the copse of pines and turn around to look back before I plunge into their deeper darkness. For a second I think I hear an alien noise borne on the night air, but I must be imagining it. I part the ferns in the familiar place and feel the swaddling cloth and the warmth of its rounded burden. I sit cross-legged and light a match, so I can see the egg, basalt-black like a volcanic larva.
‘So this is what you come here to do.’
I whip round like a tail-tweaked snake, scrabbling for the cloth. But it is too late, she has seen.
‘What on earth is that?’
There seems to be no point in lying.
‘It is an egg.’
‘Not like any egg I’ve ever seen.’
The match goes out, to my relief. I am afraid my mask slips in these moments, revealing my true age. Relief is short lived. She lights another one, and comes round to face me, getting very close. She reaches out to touch me and I know from the wonder of her expression that it is much worse than I thought.
‘You are so shrunken and gnarly,’ she says. ’How old are you?’
‘Iron age,’ I admit, sheepishly.
‘Incredible. What’s under your scarf? I think I know.’
I let her unravel the red scarf from around my neck and hold the match near to it. You cannot really miss my broken neck, where the halter was tightened on me.
‘I am one of the bog-people, lucky enough to be preserved and nourished by the peat,’ I shrug. There is a trace of pride in my voice. ‘You are not shocked?’
‘I had my suspicions. But what is this egg that you sit here and stroke?’
‘It comes from the old times. Have you heard the legend of what hatches when a cockerel lays an egg like a hen?’
‘Yes, also called a basilisk. An evil worm with a fiery comb and red eyes that turns anyone who sees it to charcoal.’
‘Lovely. And why, may I ask, are you incubating this bundle of joy?’
‘I suppose it feels like a duty. When I woke up I was holding it in my hands.’
‘In the bog?’
I nod and ask her a question.
‘Do you think you can tell the others the truth about me, so that they are not shocked? Then I can show them the egg and let them know the danger I’m saving them from when I throw it into the sea.’
She considers thoughtfully. ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I don’t think they’re ready.’
‘Then why are you ready?’
She looks hard at me, holding the match to her face. Something happens to it, something that I never expected but should have seen if my eyes had been open. Hair close-cropped was part of the punishment for female transgressors of the moral laws. She winks at me, acknowledging the obvious from her sunken socket: she too has metamorphosed into her truthful three thousand year old walnut form.
‘What was your crime? Mine was adultery.’
My jawbone is dropped and stays hanging. I am unable to speak. Then she leans close and kisses me on the mouth, and frankly, who cares about the drugged-up campers across the dunes any more. Does it matter any more if they see the egg or not?