When Raspberries Bloom in August

black raspberry

Varadin Karamazov found the raspberry blooms one late afternoon in August – a whole month after the last bush had been picked clean and every berry had been boiled into jam. The spindly bushes that lined the Karamazov’s garden now dipped under the weight of blossoms that reminded Varadin of the sights of his youth. Colors bright and varied – citrus yellow and evil eye blue, egg yolk orange and slaughterhouse red, bruise purple and pink of the flesh he’d enjoyed most in his prime.

The colors danced on petals the size of tea saucers and Varadin squatted in front the closest bush and took a whiff, his knees popping from the years he’d spent building other people’s houses. A gentle smell tinged the air; it reminded him of his firstborn, Maria – warm and sweet and wholesome. So warm it melted away the pins and needles in his bones. So sweet the punch of the August heat lessened. So wholesome his heart also bloomed with tenderness he’d thought he’d sown long ago raising his children, making them into men and women.

It took three big whiffs before he dragged two scratched wooden chairs with their white paint peeling and arranged them where the bushes were thickest. He brought two plastic lemonade bottles filled with water and he guided his wife, Ghena, rough hands over her eyes, to the spot. He did so slowly and with patience, for Ghena was a woman who had outgrown the silly surprises only girls cherished.

Her cursing ceased as she smelled the blossoms, and once Varadin revealed the iridescent petals, all further accusations of insanity, mentions of her age, and threats against his mother withered before uttered. Instead, she smiled as wide as her cracked skin allowed and searched for her husband’s hand the way she used to when boys sang songs about her hair and her feet could dance on burning embers.

Both took a seat and watched the petals, even though Ghena had to feed the chickens and cook the meat that dripped juices down the kitchen table’s legs, attracting flies, and Varadin had to water the rows of tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers and carrots, potatoes and squash. But the work would remain the same each day of the week, and didn’t they deserve a break?

This was how they spent the first day the raspberries bloomed in June.

On the second day the bushes bloomed, Varadin and Ghena snipped stems and twigs heavy with blossoms and adorned their house. Vases and cups, pots and bowls held the beauty of the petals, their syrupy aroma permeating every room in which a window brought direct sunlight. Somehow life seemed better, easier, and their bodies carried Varadin and Ghena through their tasks with ease and a spring to their step. The wooden cutting board sang under Ghena’s knife as she sliced and diced the best produce she’d selected for pickling and finest meats she’d purchased with their savings for the long winter months.

Fat sizzled on the pan, bread rose in the oven, spices turned broth bright red. Meals they’d earned – full of heat and flavor. Meals they’d dreamt of all their lives, which suddenly Ghena could cook with gusto and fervor, the arthritis in her hands a memory long wilted into pulp. Their life continued on with hearty meals that wrapped them in content for hours after each consuming each dish, either sitting or lying down, eyes transfixed on the bright flowers.

One day Varadin chopped down all the peach trees, the apple trees and the cherry tree for wood. A bed he would build – big and strong and high like the one the Karamazovs used to share before their breaking bodies parted them for good. During the pauses in his work, he’d water only the raspberry bushes, which bit by bit extended their tendrils over the green space and into the rows of tomatoes and peppers, whose leaves now browned and curled in on themselves. The bushes’ movement was slow and happened mostly at night, completely out of sight. One day a branch would cast shadow over the carrot patch, the next the whole patch would be swallowed whole, but neither Ghena nor Varadin minded, for what a rare sight these bushes were. Carrots they could have ever year, but raspberry blossoms like these – perhaps once in their entire lives.

Unique, one-time, divine, miraculous was how their neighbors described them. Donka, the mayor’s wife, begged for a stem or two for her own garden, followed by Pena, among the most respected doctors in town, Kunka, the shopkeeper on the Karamazov’s street, and Trana, the post office worker nearing her retirement, as did all the other women in Sapareva Banya. Ghena gave, because the bushes had grown taller than her husband by now, no small feat, and no matter where she trimmed more blossoms burst, more stems rushed skywards, more leaves spilled outwards.

But no matter how much she gave, not a single twig transplanted successfully. The bitterness of the others’ lands were too poisonous to sustain this miracle, their souls and soils too dry for the raspberries to take root. Yet, in the Karamazov household, they bloomed and grew and the Karamazovs wove wreaths that hung like crowns from walls and ceilings.

Priest Spas called this God’s work and wanted to bring the Patriarch, Neophyte, and all the men and women with cameras from the capitol. “Come witness the holiest town in Bulgaria, the one God chose.” He wanted to bring life in the town. He wanted for the bushes to bear more than multicolored flowers. But every churchgoer shook their heads at his impassioned calling and denied the request. No one else would behold the raspberry bushes for they were a gift for the people of Sapareva Banya and they would cherish them. They were the life that returned to this town. One by one the churchgoers left the small chapel for the silence of the Karamazov’s garden where the crowds would line around all four fences and stare for the better part of the day.

One man Varadin had only seen before in town stood by his spot the longest of anyone else, a serene smile shielding him from hunger and weather. He stood there day in and day out. Only the thick, dark lines that ran from groin to shoe marked his devotion. But no one could smell him, for the bushes’ scent had grown so strong a third of the town smelled of honey, laughter, and those bright memories the people in Sapareva Banya held dear to their hearts and never let go, no matter how hardship strived to bury them.

Matei, their second child, had disappeared somewhere in Europe ten years prior and couldn’t be reached, couldn’t be called back. But their eldest, Maria, lived in Sofia, working as an engineer and raising her family..

Come see how beautiful our garden has become,” Ghena would beg Maria, on the phone. Maria But Maria refused, for what business did a woman who’d already spent her paid leave have seeing raspberry bushes out of season?

Varadin spoke to both his son Svetoslav and his youngest, Dorothea. “Our house is the best in Sapareva Banya. Everyone from town visits on mornings to drink in the sight. No one grows raspberries like these,” But neither drove down to their family home. Their ties had long thinned and unraveled and the Karamazov children had spun away into their own lives and no pleading would coax them into visiting.

At night, after they rang and rang for hours on the barren telephone lines with no one to left to answer, Ghena and Varadin would lie together in the spacious bed large enough for both their pasts and embrace firmly, in the same way the raspberry vines did their room. No longer bushes, the vines ran stems in every direction, up every wall and through every crack, into every corner and over every surface. Blossoms covered wood and paint, and twigs and leaves wove themselves into bed sheets and covers the Karamazovs pulled over their bodies. They relished the scratches that reminded them what it meant to be alive.

In the weeks since the raspberries had bloomed, Ghena walked straighter, the weight of diabetes and the side effects of the pills that made her bloat stripped off to reveal her figure from before she first bore children. The pains that came to her at night were succored the moment she wrapped herself with the bushes’ rough linens. Varadin found strength anew in his limbs that had run dry and rough, his back as strong as an oak’s trunk – his hernia pulled out from his body. His mind grew sharper as his dementia dissipated and he picked up the pen to write down the journeys he’d been on as a young sailor before his knees betrayed him. Before he abandoned the seashore for the mountains and the hills. Before the dullness once his children left clouded everything.

In September, the blossoms turned to globes of translucent, white fruit that had a pearly sheen to them. Sunlight would filter through the berries the size of a small child’s fist and disperse sharp needles of colors. Fractured rainbows illuminated the Karamazov household and thus began the great gathering of berries. Ghena and Varadin would don their thickest clothes and push their way through the bushes that had overrun their entire garden, but no matter how thick their trousers and shirts, the bushes tugged and pulled at them with branches that had grown spikes. Each movement tore their garments until blood trickled down their bodies, but neither stopped for the harvest was plentiful and they spent many a day with their bright plastic basins and buckets gathering the berries. No matter how many they gathered the raspberries never ended. Another fruit waited underneath leaves the size of a human head.

Once all the buckets and all the basins had been filled, the Karamazovs made their way to the house under the watchful eyes of the town of Separeva Banya, collective mouths dripping saliva down the fences and hands wrestling with the vegetation for the coveted fruit…but the berries only gave themselves to those who had nourished them.

Inside, the Karamazovs counted their scars and chose the best berries to taste for the first time. That first bite from those first berries they collected electrified Varadin’s mouth with taste he could not describe and as the sensation coursed down his body, he contorted in such pleasure he slumped on the ground and remained there for hours as his organism absorbed the berry’s juices and changed. Ghena experienced a similar revelation as the incredible taste overcame her and dragged her next to her husband where the rest of the day flew by.

Later, upon waking from their trance, they felt better than they had their whole lives. Somehow lighter despite their age, as if every single step could launch them into the skies where they’d spin and twirl as the sun descended and ascended for seasons.

But none of that happened as the Karamazovs set to work. Varadin gathered whatever savings they had remaining and drove to the stores in town in his old Golf to buy metal jar lids and sugar – bags upon bags of sugar. Enough sugar to fill the car’s trunk, backseats and passenger seat. Ghena lined all the glass jars with jam, compote, and pickled turshia and emptied them all. She gathered all the metal pots, occupied all spots on the stove, and boiled the berries into jam. Once boiled, the jam was put into jars that Varadin sealed and gave away so that every house could taste the miracle berries.

Days passed on like this. The Karamazovs gathered berries, suffering the thicket, and had them boiled into jam. Everyone from the priest to the homeless drunkard living in one of the abandoned houses at the edge of the town lined up at the front door, waiting for hours so they’d be gifted with the taste that fed not only the body but the soul and the mind. The lines wound around the neighborhood, patient and docile, sweet smiles plastered on everyone’s faces so they could get just another spoonful of jam, whose taste eclipsed anything they’d ever eaten. Varadin and Ghena themselves had already forgotten the taste of any other food as berry juice dripped down their wrinkled mouths daily, their work sustained only by this one fruit.

When the last berry was picked, the whole of Sapareva Banya had grown dependent on a daily basket filled with two or three jars with jams. They even contributed with bags of sugar and empty jars of honey, salsa, and olives, but by late September the bushes had born all they could and the jam stopped flowing.

The lines didn’t, however. People would still line up in front of the Karamazov house, all polite smiles and steady breathing, but no Varadin and no Ghena greeted them with a “hello” and no jars were placed in their baskets and bags and purses. The line still wound itself round the cracked streets of the town but no careful rapping on the glazed glass front door would entice the Karamazovs outside. Even when the glass cracked and fractures ran from the bloody knuckles where Stepan, the auto shop owner, had been tapping for hours to the sides to the door. Not even when the glass shattered and the line proceeded into the tiny kitchen where all the tools to make the jam laid on the side, sticky with the remains of the last batch. Not even when they stormed into the garden and searched for berries themselves.

The Karamazovs remained in the confines of their bedroom, content to let the township to ravage their home until they all realized with a bitter aftertaste in their mouths that there would be no more jam for until next summer and they rushed in droves to their homes to ration what little of the precious spread they had left.

But Varadin and Ghena had gorged themselves on the berries until they no longer needed to eat. Both lay in their bed, which now resembled a bush. Little of the original furnishings survived the suffocating embrace of the vegetation. The wardrobe, chairs, and mirror were erased, accumulated into the green mass, but that was fine, because they were no longer needed. The Karamazovs needed only each other and they spent their time discovering their bodies anew.

Ghena traced fingers over Varadin’s maritime tattoos, tinged with the green of time and bulbous with tiny pustules that burst under her touch, a viscous liquid the color of moss became smeared on the wounds. Varadin ran his hands around her figure as if he were shaping his wife out of clay, smoothing the wrinkles and pulling some of her skin free to reveal another layer – smooth and with the tint of hill grass. To her he smelled of cold stones forgotten in the heart of a mountain forest where wild things hunted. To him she smelled of mint rubbed raw on rusted iron.

Their lovemaking started gently with a kiss – a true kiss. Not the quick peck out of habit, nor the shy kiss at the altar for the whole town to see. No. This was the kind that stole your breath and convinced you this was the person you could trust. The kiss that came well before love and whose memory outlasted every definition of the word. The kiss that unlocked the hunger and drove Varadin to bite the dead flesh off his wife’s lips and Ghena to dig her nails deep underneath her husband’s skin at the base of his neck and pull the large strips to her mouth where she chewed with gusto and swallowed. They devoured the years that separated their bodies and as Varadin thrust into her, they connected and life of another kind filled their eyes with predatory glee.

The bed creaked under their mutual struggle to discard themselves faster. Skin shed off and digested, showing flesh of young green and bodies that bent and twisted in ways that they were never meant to – as if their bones had weakened and turned into something altogether different. The Karamazovs pollinated each other with fervor until tendrils grew from their torsos and stitched her breasts to his chest, the undersides of his arms to her back, their pelvises together. Each nook and cranny melted into one smooth surface. Each breath they drew rushed through their porous skin, their lungs long since forgotten.

Their faces pressed hard into each other until they collapsed into one mass, Ghena’s eyes appearing at the back of her husband’s skull, Varadin’s mouth parting lips at the small of his wife’s neck. Buds pushed themselves through the mass of the Karamazovs’ bodies, large as chicken eggs. Both groaned as each individual bud formed and grew in size. Both sighed as the buds secreted a clear liquid that dripped down and sealed the Karamazov couple against the upcoming cold of winter, while the vines of the bushes insulated them from the outside world.

Thus ended their lovemaking and rebirth.

Thus began their sleep, until the raspberries would bloom again in August.

Haralambi Markov

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, Markov enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets at @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in Geek Love, Electric Velocipede, TOR.com, Stories for Chip and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, The Near Now and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on outdoing his output for the past three years and procrastinating all the way. 

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