Every summer that we lived in Pennsylvania, our neighbor's red raspberries tested out wills. The canes grew taller and sturdier, the berries fatter and juicer and more abundant. Then one year the canes were almost within arm's reach. They waved tantalizingly close. So close that an evening breeze could lift them just across the split-rail fence.
Those were the years we lived in the almost-forgotten village of Gravity, "at the top of the Poconos," some said. Miles of stone fences marked off dairy farms from murky wetlands and deep hardwood forests where deer and black bears, wild turkeys and porcupines roamed at will.
One summer Sunday, my husband, Duane, and I sat on the porch of our old gray farmhouse drinking ice water, feet propped up on the white rail. Between hospitable nods to the valley folks who slowly rounded the corner of Gravity Hill in their RVs trying to escape the heat, we eyeballed Fred's red raspberry bushes on the other side of the fence.
Fred and Gail lived in New York. They had owned the Pennsylvania house for more than 20 years and came on weekends and holidays to vacation with family and friends. They were the first to welcome us to the village, and we noticed that they didn't seem to like raspberries; they almost never picked them. The birds gobbled them up while we hung over the fence with our tongues lolling.
Duane envisioned pies and cobblers and ice cream smothered in fat red berries. I dreamed of jars and jars of jam - jam on toast, on English muffins, on pancakes, and on waffles. They teased us with their bright red color and their fragrant sweetness. Alas, they were not on our property, so we let the birds have their way and made sure our cars weren't parked in the driveway too long.
Two or three weeks had gone by when I arrived home at the end of the day and found Duane sitting on the porch.
"The berries are ripe," he said.
"I know. They're huge. Great for jam."
"Wonder if Fred's coming this weekend."
"Well, they were here last weekend. Didn't hear him say he would be." I went inside and read the mail. A few days went by, then the weekend. No Fred. The berries grew close to the fence near the garage, and I passed them going and coming. I had almost succeeded in ignoring them altogether. But not quite.
It was Thursday of the following week when I arrived home and found Duane in the kitchen already starting dinner.
"Want to see something?" he said.
"Sure." Duane is not generally into mystery games, so I was curious. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a medium-sized container. Suddenly, I had visions of our son when he was 8, storing frogs and smelly crayfish in the refrigerator. Oh, surely not. Grown men don't do stuff like that.
He slowly lifted the lid. The container was full to the brim with the biggest raspberries I had ever seen.
"Frank's berries! You picked Frank's berries!"
"Well, he hasn't picked them for three years, and he probably won't start now," Duane said. I could tell he was trying not to be defensive. He was right about Fred's not picking the berries, of course, but still it seemed like stealing, or at least trespassing.
We had the berries with cream for breakfast and the rest on ice cream a couple of times. The berries were so red and so big the end of your tongue filled the stem hole. A great year for berries.
Fred came the next week, and we got to talking over the fence near the berry bushes.
"Those are great berries, Fred," I said. "We get some volunteer bushes in our yard over here."
"Yeah," said Duane. "Guess we'll transplant them over there by the side of our garage, and just let them grow."
"Well, that's where they came from," Fred said. "The people who owned the place before you folks had all these berries, and then they kept creeping over, and now I've got 'em. Keep saying I'm gonna get rid of 'em. Take all you want."
Duane and I looked at each other; suddenly we didn't feel quite so sheepish about picking Fred's raspberries.
I had always known berry canes "walked," as my father used to say. The canes grow tall, bend over, and plant their tops, and so they move from place to place in the forest, if left undisturbed. I've always felt better knowing that they had been on our side of the fence not long ago. They were just visiting the neighbors. They'd be home again soon.