“Mommy, look! I found an acorn,” Jakey says, running over to me, and slowly opening his tiny fingers to show me his discovery.
“Actually, that’s a berry!” I say, bemused by the fact that, at three, he would mistake this soft, pale fruit for a hard nut. “Where did you find that?” We walk over to the shady part of our backyard, and he shows me that the lawn is covered in a light sprinkling of whitish-green raspberry-like fruits. We look up, our eyes catching in the fragmented sunlight, and see that above us hangs a tree with branches bearing these berries. I wonder why in the three years of living in this house, I have never noticed them, but have only stumbled upon the baby-pears that frequently fall on our lawn from a neighbor’s yard.
“Could we eat them?” Emmanuelle asks, anxious to sample some home-grown produce, as we have spent much time in the yard together planting vegetation that has failed to grow. Plants that need maintenance, regular watering, or one of those cages to grow in, are not really my thing, and so the wild-berry tree appeals to me immensely.
I bend down to examine them, as the branches are too high to reach. The berries are strikingly similar to the ones that used to grow on trees that flanked the driveway of the house in which I grew up. “Elderberries,” my mom once told us. “They’re delicious.” As kids, we used to pull on the branches and pick the fruit, placing our harvest in several little sandwich bags, secured by twist-ties, in the fridge, until we were ready to have a sale. Then, my siblings and I would drag out our heavy wooden crafts table, design a sign that read, “Berries for sale, 25 cents,” and lay out our produce. At spring’s end, my father would always have to prune the branches, as our frequent pulling made them heavy and droopy, almost willow-like, and it was difficult to park the car.
While the elderberries of my youth were of a deep purple color, the berries that Jakey discovered resembled those that were unripe, still clinging to the trees, sour and tart. And yet, here, they had fallen anyway, scattered haphazardly in the grass, soft and squishy, but pale and colorless. “You can each take two,” I say, “But let’s bring them inside to wash them. If they’re good, tomorrow we can gather more,” because their cheeks were a bright pink from heat, and I was craving some air conditioning.
We wash the berries, and the kids happily pop the fruits into their mouths, excited to have made this discovery in our yard. “It tastes like bananas!” Jakey says, while Emmanuelle’s face registers some minor displeasure. I put the baby down for a nap, and sit on the cool tile floor with the kids, acting as a policewoman, as they build together, fighting over who has more Magna-Tiles.
Some hours later, after the kids have been fed and are fast asleep, I find myself recounting the details of the afternoon to my mother on the phone, while my husband entertains several friends with pizza and a boxing match on the big-screen in the basement. But it is difficult for me to have much continuity in the conversation, as the dialogue is frequently punctuated by Jakey’s sleep-filled cries. I creep into his room and see that he is thrashing and rolling in his sleep, perching precariously close to the edge of his bed, perhaps another of his frequent night terrors. Afraid that he might fall off, I tenderly lift him up and reposition him back on his pillow, within the safe confines of his Elmo-guardrail. I notice his breathing seems ragged, apnea-like, and assume his nose must be stuffed or his large, oversized tonsils are acting up again, disrupting his even breathing and his ability to enter into deep REM.
His deep-set eyes blink open momentarily. “I need some water. In my ABC’s cup,” he says, referring to a sports-bottle that has his name on it. The kids frequently ask for drinks in the middle of the night, perhaps as a tactic to lure me into their rooms, or maybe because they sleep with their mouths open, snoring widely. When I bring it, Jakey insists that I go get the carrying-strap that attaches to its sides, and only after it is in place, can he gulp down the water, drinking as if he is parched. I tiptoe out of the room, trying to resume the conversation with my mother, but am interrupted once again. This time, he requests a visit from my husband, and that his night-light should be turned off, as he is afraid of the vague shadows it casts on his ceiling. Utter and complete darkness is less of a threat.
“Okay,” I say, sighing resignedly, and head back to the kitchen to speak to my mother in a voice that is only slightly above a whisper.
“So what did you do today with the kids? It was so nice out…” she begins. And I know she will be happy to hear that I took them outside, as my whole life has been filled with her emphasizing the importance of being outdoors. I am secretly relieved that my husband is not in the room at the moment, as usually during these conversations, he lingers nearby, mocking me with his gestures and facial motions, holding up an imaginary checklist of the play-by-play facts I forgot to include, as I enthusiastically recount the particulars in vivid detail, to my mom.
“The funniest thing,” I say, taking advantage of my verbal freedom. “The kids discovered these berries in the yard, kind of like the ones we used to have in the driveway, and I let them eat a few. Brought back such memories.”
“But Sarah, you can’t just let them eat wild berries,” she interjects. “How do you know they’re not poisonous?” And then it hits me. I don’t. “You can’t just assume that they’re okay because they look familiar.” As the severity of my mistake descends, I feel sick, as if I had consumed a handful of toxic fruits, even though I had not eaten any of the berries myself. My stomach was heavy, leaden, and my head seemed adrift. I think she regrets voicing her concern, as she realizes my ensuing state of panic.
Immediately, I run up the to computer and Google, “How to tell if berries are poisonous,” but all I really learn from that is how to eat plants if I am stranded in the wilderness for several days. I change my search terms, and begin typing in names of berries, hoping to find an image that matched the ones in our yard.
Jakey is crying again in his room, and my instinct tells me that certainly it is the poison from the berries that is seeping into his nervous system. Emmanuelle is quiet in her bed, but it could have affected her in a silent-killer type of way. Is she even breathing? I wonder, and decide that I will definitely not be informing my husband of my giant error, my oversight, my accidental poisoning of two of our three children. I imagine his shock when in the morning, he discovers we are no longer a family of five, but are a more compact three.
White Mulberry. The picture on my computer screen seems to be a good replica for the berries I allowed the kids to eat. These seem safe. A tiny breath escapes my lips and for a moment, my rapidly beating heart takes a break from its marathon. But I can’t seem to eradicate the tiny margin of error that still remains. Maybe they’re not white mulberries. My picture will be plastered all over the papers, with the caption, “Worst Mother Ever.” They will probably take me away in cuffs, and the baby will be raised by my husband, who will feed her pizza for three meals a day, because husbands never remember vegetables.
I run downstairs, passed my crying son, passed the stillness that lay behind Emmanuelle’s closed door, into the dark basement, positioning myself to the side of the big screen so that the rowdy group of young men does not notice the frantically flailing woman on the staircase, as I try desperately to catch Yoni’s eye. He is popping open bottles of beer, and looks up for a moment, offering me one. I shake my head, refusing his kind offer, as my insides are tight, tense, with no room for any expansive material, and motion for him to join me at the top of the staircase.
“Umm, I might have poisoned the kids,” I confess, breaking my own vow of silence, never my strong point anyway. He stares blankly at me, unsure as to whether or not I am being serious. “I let them eat some berries from the yard, and my mom said they might be harmful.” He rolls his eyes, already used to the tales of negative anticipation I so anxiously weave. I am a creative storyteller. The deadly diseases, learning disabilities that I always assume the kids have, that I always attempt to convince him of, substantiating them with facts I have gleaned from the internet or an old medical textbook, always prove unfounded. He knows this about me.
“I’ll kill you,” he says, resolutely, definitively. He brusquely dismisses my fears with his succinctness, and I can almost detect a hint of a smile underneath his pursed lips. Further dialogue would only produce more worry, but he knows how to deal with me, with my nerves. Yoni sprints upstairs to give Jakey another goodnight kiss before returning to the boxing match and his guests. I want to pull on his shirt, to make him stay with me and comfort me, and give me reasons as to why they will survive the night. I want him to be a berry-expert, to know the scientific name of the fruit in our yard, and to tell me that not only is it safe for human consumption, but it is rich in anti-oxidants. I want him whisper that I am a good mother, even though I might have messed up.
I make it through the night, hanging onto the tail of my husband’s confidence, despite the fact that I am wrought with anxiety. Usually when I go to sleep with fear in my throat, I sleep in winks, short lurches of shallow rests, but tonight, I manage to pass the seven hours in one blink. In the morning, the kids are still silent. My heart skips a beat as my ears strain to listen for noises from their rooms below. Just the whirring of the air-conditioning, a hum that blasts its steady, calming breath. Suddenly, the pitter-patter of bare feet on hardwood floors causes me to sit upright in bed. “They’re alive!” I say, to the figure of my sleeping husband, wrapped cocoon-like under the blanket next to me. He seems unmoved by this kernel of good news. I smile, despite our unshared enthusiasm.
“Can I come upstairs?” I hear Jakey call up to me from below, cautious about entering our room without permission.
“Yes!” I gush, never so thrilled to have an early morning visitor as I was just then. Emmanuelle appears at the door, trailing behind him, and I hug them fiercely, pulling their tiny bodies up over the high bed frame. Emmanuelle curls up in the space next to my husband, radiant and warm from his sleep, nestled and secure, and I wrap my arms and legs around Jakey, a full body embrace. “I love you!” I whisper, into his tousled, ashen hair. I hold him close, relieved that tragedy has escaped us, that the children are mine to hold, at least until the next mistake.