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Erskine Caldwell
1903-1987

   

The Strawberry Season

by Erskine Caldwell



   
 

Early in the spring when the strawberries began to ripen, everybody went from place to place helping the farmers gather them. If it had been a good season for the berries and if there were many berries to pick, there would sometimes be as many as thirty-five or forty people in one field. Some men brought their families along, going from one farm to the next as fast as the berries could be gathered. They slept in barns or any place they could find. And, because the season was so short, everybody had to work from sunrise to sunset.

We used to have the best times picking strawberries. There were always a lot of girls there and it was great fun teasing them. If one of them stooped over a little too far and showed the least bit of herself, whoever saw her first shouted as loudly as he could. The rest of us would take up the yee and pass it all over the field. The other girls would giggle among themselves and pull their skirts down. The girl who had caused the shouting would blush and hurry away to the packing shed with a tray of baskets. By the time she returned some other girl had stooped over too far and everybody was laughing at her.

There was a girl named Fanny Forbes who was always showing some of herself by stooping too far. Everybody liked Fanny.

Another thing we had a lot of fun out of was what we called "strawberry-slapping." One of us would slip up behind a girl while she was stooping over filling her baskets and drop a big juicy ripe strawberry down her dress. It usually stopped midway of her back and there we slapped it good and hard. the mashed strawberry made a mess. The red juice oozed through the cloth and made a big round stain. If the berry was against the skin, it was even worse. Very few girls minded that though. Everybody wore their old clothes in the fields and it did not matter about the stain. The worst part was being laughed at. Everybody stopped picking berries to laugh. When that was over, everybody went back to work and forgot until somebody else got strawberry-slapped. We had a lot of fun picking berries.

Fanny Forbes got more strawberry-slappings than any other girl. All the boys and men liked her and she never became angry. Fanny was good-looking, too.

One day I went to a field where I knew the strawberry crop was good. It was a small field of only two or three acres and few people ever bothered to go there. I decided to go before somebody else did.

When I reached the field, Fanny was finishing the first two rows. She had thought of having the whole field to herself, just as I thought of doing. We did not mind the other being there as long as no one else came.

"Hello, Fanny," I said. "What made you think of coming over here to Mr. Gunby's place today?"

"The same thing that made you think of it, I guess," she answered, blowing the sand off a handful berries and putting them into her mouth.

We started off side by side. Fanny was a fast picker and it was all I could do to keep up with her.

About an hour before noon the sun came out and the sky became cloudless. The berries were ripening almost as fast as we could gather them. Fanny filled a dozen boxes from her next row. She could pick all day and never have a single piece of vine among her berries. She used only the thumb and the next two fingers, making a kind of triangle that grasped the berry close to the stem and lifted it off. She never mashed a berry like some people were forever doing.

I had never before noticed it in any other field, but today Fanny was barelegged. In the afternoon it was much cooler without stockings, of course, and it was the best way to keep from wearing them out in the knees. She saw me looking at her bare legs and smiled just a little. I wanted to tell her how nice-looking they were but I did not dare to.

The mid-afternoon was even hotter than it had been at twelve o'clock. The slight breeze we had felt in the morning was gone and the sun hung over us like a burning glass. Fanny's legs were burned brown.

Before I knew what I was doing I stole up behind Fanny and dropped a great big juicy berry down the open neck of her dress. It frightened her at first. Believing that I was several rows away she thought it was a bug or insect of some kind that had fallen down the opening of her dress. When she jumped up and saw me standing behind her, however, she laughed and reached down into the bosom of her waist for the berry. I was certain I saw it under her dress. Before she could reach it with her hand I slapped it as hard as I could. I thought surely she would laugh as she had always done when somebody strawberry-slapped her, but this time she did not laugh. She sat down quickly, hugging herself tightly. I then realized something was wrong. She looked up at me and there were tears in her eyes. I fell on my knees beside her. I had slapped her breasts.

"What's the matter, Fanny?" I begged. "Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to. Honest, I didn't mean to."

"I know you didn't mean to," she said, the tears falling on her lap, "but it did hurt. You mustn't hit me there."

"I'll never do it again, Fanny. I promise I won't."

"It's all right now," she smiled painfully. "It still hurts a little though."

Her head fell on my shoulder. I put my arms around her. She wiped the tears from her eyes.

"It's all right now," she repeated. "It will stop hurting soon."

She lifted her head and smiled at me. Her large round blue eyes were the shade of the sky when the sun has began to rise.

"I'll never strawberry-slap you again as long as I live, Fanny," I pleaded, hoping she would forgive me.

Fanny unbuttoned the dress down to her waist. The berry was mashed beneath her undercloth. The scarlet stain looked like a morning-glory against the white cloth.

"I'll have to unfasten this too, to get the berry out," she said.

"Let me get it," I urged. "You don't want the juice all over your fingers."

She unfastened the undergarment. The berry lay crushed between her breasts. They were milk-white and the center of each was stained like a mashed strawberry. Hardly knowing what I was doing I hugged her tightly in my arms and kissed her lips for a long time. The crushed strawberry fell to the ground beside us.

When we got up, the sun was setting and earth was becoming cool. We found our boxes and baskets of berries and walked across the field to the barn. When we got there, Mr. Gunby counted them and paid us the money we had earned.

We went through the barnyard to the front of the house and stood at the gate looking at each other for several minutes. Neither of us said anything. Fanny had once said she had never had a sweet-heart. I wish she had been mine.

Fanny turned and went down the road in one direction and I went up the road in another. It was the end of the strawberry season.

 
           

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Last updated:
June 27, 2008
   
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