“Are we there yet?” Davy asked for the fifth time in half an hour.

            “Not yet,” Mom and Dad answered again from the front seat of the ten-year-old DeSoto.

            “Shut up, twerp.” Meg poked her little brother to break up the otherwise boring trip.

            “Mom, she hit me,” Davy whined.

            “I did not.” Meg figured that was almost true because Davy’s thick wool sweater protected him from most things.

            “Behave yourselves back there...” Mom half-turned her head.

            “…or I’ll turn this car around and take us home,” Dad added. In the rearview mirror, his eyebrows sank into a dark V like the wings of a circling hawk.

            “Fine with me.” Meg sulked in her corner of the back seat. Staring out the window, she wished she were with her friend Denise, listening to 45s in her room or testing makeup samples at Reed’s 5 & 10, instead of listening to Davy’s fussing and putting up with this stupid family outing. “Why do I have to go cranberry picking anyway? You guys can pick without me.”

            “Because this is a family outing and you’re part of the family,” Mom said, pausing to check the map. “Besides, it will be fun. We’ve always had a good time picking before.”

            That was true, Meg had to admit. Dozens of “U-Pick-It” farms patchworked the county, so each season brought a family outing or two: strawberries in the spring, blueberries and tomatoes in the summer, apples and pumpkins in the fall. Meg liked these trips well enough, especially on sunny days when she could pluck the ripest blueberries, pop them in her mouth, and savor each sensation.

            First, she’d notice their warmth and texture, full, round, and smooth. Then, she’d take that first gentle bite, and the sun-sweetened juice would burst in her mouth, making her tremble with delight. Best of all, no one cared how many you ate. The farmers charged per person, so whatever you ate or took home was up to you. Dad said the outings built character; he didn’t mind if the kids ate while they picked. And Mom didn’t care either, as long as they got enough fruit for her canning and pie baking.

            But that was blueberry season, and this was cranberry season. Instead of bright warm days of endless blue sky, chilling gray days smothered the sun with low clouds. And today was particularly drizzly and blustery. All the better to build your character, Meg thought glumly.            


            “We’re here,” Mom announced. The DeSoto jounced down a potholed road, distinguished only by a battered sign for Grigg’s Farm. A slightly newer hand-painted sign leaned against it, with “U-PIK CRANberries” lettered in dingy red.

            At a small booth by the farm’s gate, Dad got out of the car and talked with a stalk of a man who wore mud-spattered overalls, a frayed plaid shirt, and a faded gray cap. His thin face was deeply lined and craggy, like the scrub pines surrounding the farm.

            After paying and getting instructions, Dad got back in the car, beaming. “That Mr. Grigg. What a character! He’s going to meet us at the bog and set us up. He says we have it to ourselves so far, so we should be able to pick a ton of berries.”

            “The bog?” Meg murmured. From the rear window, she saw Grigg draw back his lips in a gap-toothed smile. Dad steered the car around the potholes, shrinking the old man into the distance. Then he turned onto a raised dirt trail not much wider than the car.

At the end of the trail, they tumbled out of the car, glad to stretch after the long drive through the Pine Barrens. Dad immediately started pulling work clothes out of the trunk: his best hip waders, which he usually used for surf fishing; his spare waders for Mom; and raincoats, hats, and galoshes for Meg and Davy. Then they all put on their waterproof gear.

Mom’s oversized waders bulged and flapped under the weight of the excess rubber. Over her hair, she tied a red scarf with small white polka dots. The dainty scarf made the ungainly waders look even more ridiculous.

“Wow, Mom, you really know how to make a fashion statement,” Meg teased.

Mom took a mock runway turn. “Oh, yes. It’s all the rage in the bogs of Paris this season.” With her hands on her hips and her back arched, the waders squeaked and billowed like a circus clown’s pants. Meg and Davy giggled so hard they had to sit down.
            Just then, Grigg arrived in his battered Ford pickup. He ratcheted himself out of the driver’s seat and limped over to the group. His trailing foot dragged across the loose gravel, silencing the laughter instantly. Mom quickly flattened her waders; Meg and Davy scrambled to their feet.

“Mr. Grigg,” Dad said, “this is my wife Fran and our kids Megan and Davy.”

Grigg looked them over one by one, and touched the bill of his cap in greeting. “Ever pick cranberries before?”

“No,” Dad said. “But we’ve picked blueberries and other fruit.”

Grigg sucked on his cheeks, making his thin face even more skeletal. “Cranberries don’t pick like blueberries. Look here.”

He hobbled a few yards up the trail; the family followed in a solemn procession. On each side of the trail, fields had been flooded for the harvest. “I’m experimentin’ with these fields. Had ’em bottom-leveled last year.” According to Grigg, the bogs were dry and sandy most of the year and filled with cranberry bushes. When the berries became ripe, his crews flooded the fields and walked through them, wearing waders and carrying beaters that knocked the berries off the submerged bushes. “Cranberries are part hollow,” Grigg said. “When they rise to the top, we corral ’em with floatin’ booms. Then we push ’em into the conveyor for harvestin’.”

            “Like over there?” Meg pointed to a distant field that had been beaten but not yet harvested. The corralled berries glowed like rubies against the bog’s dark water.


            “Then this will be easy. We’ll just push the berries into some bushel baskets.” Meg tickled Davy.

            “No, Miss Megan.” Grigg’s tone stopped her wiggling fingers. “That’s my commercial harvest. You’ll be workin’ the older fields up here.” He limped back past the parked vehicles. Davy elbowed Meg in the ribs.

            Arms crossed over his chest, Grigg surveyed a dark pond heavy with tangled undergrowth. “This field is still pretty near the way God made it. The bed’s uneven and deep, sand over marsh, with an old variety of stock. ’Course, we had to flood it to keep the frost off the berries.”

            “There are berries in there?” Davy looked worried.

            “Oh yes, Master Davy.” Grigg’s mouth twisted into a grin. “Still on the bushes.”

            “So how do we get them?” Meg asked.

            “The way we did years ago.” Grigg lurched over to his pickup and rummaged through its bed.

            Meg whispered, “Look at this place, Dad. We won’t get any cranberries here.”

            “Sure, we will. We’ll just do it the old-fashioned way. It’ll be fun,” Dad said.

            At that, Davy whimpered. Yeah right, Meg thought. A damp bog on a cold day with a whiney brother. Big fun.


            Grigg pulled out a crate of hand scoops. Each wooden scoop was shaped like a small box, with long metal fingers on one end to pull the berries off the branches and a screen on the other end to drain the water. Grigg showed them how to scoop the berries, drain off the water, and dump them into half-bushel baskets.

            Because Meg and Davy had only galoshes, Grigg positioned them at the bog’s shallow edge and put their baskets on the bank. He stationed Mom and Dad in the deeper areas and floated their baskets inside old inner tubes nearby. After supervising for a few minutes, he said, “I’ve got to finish harvestin’ that front field. You folks be alright now?”

            “Sure,” Dad said. “We’ve got the hang of it.”

            Grigg leaned down toward Meg and Davy and raised a bony finger. “Now don’t you young’uns go wanderin’ any deeper than your ankles. There’s some mighty deep bog holes out there. And they’ll suck you right in.” He looked both children in the eyes, serious as sin, and then limped to his truck. Over his shoulder, he repeated, “Remember. No deeper than your ankles.”

            Davy cast an anxious glance toward Mom and Dad, who were almost screened from sight by a clump of scraggly bushes. In water up to their thighs, both adults were already scooping berries. “Don’t worry,” Meg said. “They’re a lot bigger than us, and they swim like fish.” She tossed a stray berry at her brother.

            Brightening, Davy dodged the berry and made a farting noise. “Ha-ha. You missed.”

            “I was just testing for distance.”


            For more than half an hour, Meg threw herself into cranberry picking. She spurred herself on with one thought: The sooner we get done, the sooner I can get home and call Denise. With the gusts getting stronger and the temperature dropping, getting home was sounding better than ever. She gathered, drained, and deposited scoop after scoop into her basket. Soon her wet hands were aching from the cold, and the wind was whipping across her face, chapping her skin.

Occasionally, long thin branches of submerged bushes brushed against her boots, making the hair on her arms stand up. They pulled her imagination to the bottom of the bog, even though the thought of it made her shiver. She pushed herself to focus on scooping and draining, scooping and draining.

Tired and cold, Meg straightened the haul in her basket, which was a little over half full. She decided she needed a break from the punishment her family called an outing. “Hey, Davy,” she called. “How much do you have?”

            Davy trudged through the dark water. He hadn’t quite grown into his yellow slicker and rain hat. They floated on him, making him look like an old sea captain who had shrunken inside his foul-weather gear. He dumped a small scoop into his basket and weighed his answer like a judge. “About half a basket.”

            “Oh yeah? Let me see.” Meg dragged her basket over to Davy’s. “Well, I’ll be, Master Davy,” she said, imitating Grigg’s piney accent. “You sure got yourself a heap o’ berries there. You got ’most as many as Miss Megan here.” When Davy grinned at her, Meg saw her chance for some fun. “Hey, did you ever eat a cranberry raw?” She tried to sound innocent.

            “No. Did you?”

            “Sure. They’re great raw.” Meg peered into her basket. “You know, I would’ve had a lot more by now if I hadn’t eaten so many.” She tipped her basket toward Davy to show him.

            “I don’t believe you.” Davy shook his head, the too-large hat sliding from side to side.

            “Oh, yeah? Watch me.” Meg picked a fat red berry from her basket. “Ooh, this looks like a juicy one.” She put it to her mouth, but quickly palmed it while pretending to chew and swallow. “Mm-mm good.” Meg smiled. “I think these are even better than blueberries.” She paused to let that sink in. “They taste like blueberries, only redder and sweeter.”

            Davy frowned and studied his basket. “Like blueberries?” He carefully selected a large scarlet berry to test.

            “With sugar.” Meg held her breath.

            Davy popped the cranberry into his mouth and chewed. In a second, his face contorted. “Aaarrrgh!” He spat out the bitter fruit, reached into his basket, and threw a fistful of berries at Meg.

She ducked and laughed. “What’s the matter? Did you get a bad one?” Meg teased, lobbing a handful of her own at her brother.

Davy coughed and spat again, his face turning red. “Leave me alone,” he shouted, hurling another bunch of berries at her.

“Here, try some more,” Meg threw the contents of her bucket at him.

Under the crimson hail, Davy reached down and grabbed a handful of bog mud. “I hate you!” He pitched the mud as hard as he could.

The mud slapped the side of Meg’s head, splattering across her eyes. “You jerk!” she shrieked, charging toward him blindly. Meg hoped to land a good punch, but rammed into Davy instead. She heard his yell and a loud splash.

Quickly, Meg wiped the mud out of her eyes and spotted Davy’s hat floating about 20 yards out like a small yellow boat lost in a vast dark sea. Oh no, she thought, the bog’s got him!

            Instantly, she slipped out of her boots and dove into the water, aiming for just below the floating hat. Her muscles tensed in the chilly water. But she forced herself to kick hard. She surfaced near the hat, shouting Davy’s name.

Again she dove, willing herself to keep her eyes open in the cold, dark water. Dead black leaves and broken twigs floated between the submerged bushes, making it difficult to see. She groped among the branches, hoping to grab Davy’s arm or collar or anything. Her frantic kicks stirred up sediment from the bottom of the bog.

            Meg shot to the surface for a breath of air. Quickly, she dove down again. Panic climbed up her spine toward her throat. Where is he? She spun underwater to check in all directions. The bog remained silent.

            Meg resurfaced, gasping for breath. Murky water sprayed from her nose and mouth. “Davy!” she called. Wiping sediment from her eyes with one hand, she paddled feverishly with the other.

Suddenly, Dad’s strong arms lifted her out of the water. Meg coughed a leaf away from her lips. “The bog hole’s got him!” she wailed, wildly scanning the water’s surface. Desperate now to find Davy, she twisted in her father’s arms, trying to dive again.

            “It’s all right,” Dad said. “He’s OK.”

            “But the splash,…” Meg spluttered.

            “It’s OK, honey.” Dad pushed back the muddy hair that clung to her face and picked a clump of leaves off her shoulder. “As soon as Mom heard you two squabbling, she headed over. She grabbed Davy before he got into trouble.”

“But his hat…I thought he was in deep…” Confused and relieved, Meg began to cry softly.

            “The wind must have lifted the hat right off his head.”

            “He’s really OK?”

            “Sure. He only fell in shallow water. Of course, he got pretty wet.” Her father suppressed a grin. “But not as wet as you.”

            Dad set Meg down at the water’s edge. “Rest here a minute. I’ll get your boots and the scoops and baskets, and we’ll go home.” He waded back into the bog.

            Mom brought over a towel and returned to the car to crank up its heater. While Meg was drying off, Davy sat next to her. “You thought you were gonna save me from a bog hole?” He laughed like this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

            “Shut up, twerp.” Meg poked him in the side and grabbed his arm. Then strangely, she didn’t want to let him go.

Nancy Priff was raised on Long Beach Island and now lives in Ambler, PA. She is the recipient of a 2003 Fellowship in Fiction from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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