Plain China

When I Die

by Darcy Anderson · Tufts University
At Noon, Taylor Walker · Hollins University

When I die, don’t have a funeral. That’s what my mama used to say. Don’t have a funeral. Wait until the height of summer, when you think the weather’s going to be fine, and get up early. Get up early before the sunrise, and bake yourself a pie. But don’t just bake yourself a pie, really do it right. Get your fingers smeared in butter. Cover your wrists in pastry flour. Go out back and scramble through the thorns for berries. And when it finally comes out of the oven, still warm, wrap it up in newspaper and carry it to the top of the hill. When you’ve done all that, sit down in the sunshine and eat like it’s your last meal on Earth. Then I can smile down on you from heaven and remember the things that were truly good in life.

My mama died in February. It’s August now. Although we didn’t have a funeral, her ashes have sat in my kitchen cupboard these past months, reminding me of untidied ends. A rainy spring came and went with cloudy skies and gently falling tears. The early summer months held on to the cold of spring for far too long. But about a week ago the sun started to come home. The ground dried up. The berries out back swelled in the sunshine. Sweet and full and ripe. Yesterday I looked out the window and said to myself, The weather’s truly fine now, Mama. So I called into work and took the day off. I’ve got a funeral to go to, I said. And now I’m on my knees in the early dawn light, picking berries. My fingers are stained with juice, and small trails of blood cake on my shins from wading deeply into the thicket.

When my papa was still alive, he used to trim back the brambles until one day Mama found a bird’s nest in the clippings he’d dragged away. Delicate blue eggs scattered across the grass. From that day on, she insisted he leave the thorns uncut. It helps remind me I’m still alive, she used to say as she sponged off her scratches in the kitchen sink while the pie dough chilled in the refrigerator.

My mama had a way with pie. Of all the things I leave on this Earth, she used to say, I’ll be happy if I leave it with better pie. It’s all about getting your fingers down into the dough. And don’t skimp on the butter. If you’re going to sit down and eat yourself a slice of pie, the last thing you want is a crust like sawdust. So get your fingers down into the dough. Feel the grease between your fingers, and when you’ve got enough butter, you’ll know.

 

My dough is in the refrigerator. Taking time to rest while I sort through the berries for leaves. Don’t rush a good dough, my mama used to say. Good dough takes time. My fingers pick absently through the bowl, tossing the brilliant black and ruby jewels to one side, and the twigs and leaves to the other. When my bowl is so full that it looks like nothing more will fit in the crust, I set aside the remaining berries for another day. Next come several generous handfuls of sugar, a dash of flour, and a twist of lemon. Don’t skimp on the sugar, but don’t forget the lemon, she used to say. You’ve got to have a little pucker of sour to remind you about everything that’s good in all that sugar. A quick pinch around the edges of the crust, and the whole thing slides into the oven.

At about half past ten the doorbell rings. It’s my sister. I go to hug her, but my way is blocked by a large bundle wrapped in newspaper, grease stains blurring the print on top. We settle for an awkward one-armed squeeze as she maneuvers the bundle onto the counter. Blueberry, she says, when I ask. Just started to ripen in the garden.

Before too long, my pie joins hers. The juices have bubbled thickly around the edges. The crust has darkened to a golden brown. A light dusting of sugar clinging to the edge like dew in the early morning. Before long, it too is wrapped in newspaper. Long slits cut into the top vent the steam. Before they have a chance to cool, my sister, the pies, and I are on our way up the hillside.

 

Strictly speaking, my family never owned the hill. The land is held in public trust, and many people climb to the rocks on top to enjoy the view. But we grew up in its shadow and played on its slopes for so long, I can’t imagine our hill as belonging to anyone else.

For a while, we sweat up the slope in silence. The day has broken in full force as fine as any. The gaps between the trees are hot with sunlight. Neither one of us speaks, whether because we are lost in thought or out of breath is hard to say. Mama would have liked this, I think. Makes me feel alive, she would have said, the salty sting of sweat running into her eyes.

The hilltop is deserted when we arrive. My sister spreads an old blanket on the granite while I balance the pies nearby. She pulls out plates and forks, and we both smile when I remark that our mama would have just eaten right out of the pan. She cuts generously, heaping each of our plates with two slices. Both are still warm, and the juices leak thickly onto the plate, mingling into a palette of purples, reds, and blues.

Few words pass between us. Praise of each other’s cooking, though deserved, is unnecessary. Mama taught us well, and we both know it. When a pie’s made well, she used to say, no one needs to tell you. They need only ask for more. So, when the first pieces are gone, I serve out seconds. Never turn down a second slice of pie, my mama used to say. Especially a good one. I never want to go to my grave regretting not having another, and I’ll be darned if I can think of a time when I regretted having two. So we have seconds, and up here on the hill, with the sun in our faces and a breeze rustling in the leaves, I have to admit that she was right.

We hear the skitter of rock on rock and look to see who is responsible. A man comes up behind us and for a time surveys the valley below.

“Nice day for a picnic,” he remarks, eventually.

I hum back my agreement in deference to a full mouth. With a swallow and regained politeness, I offer him a piece. When he accepts, I rummage through our bags for a spare plate or a fork but find only a pile of napkins. I make apologies, but he’s not to be deterred, so I cut thickly and pass the napkin-wrapped bundle to eager hands. Following a second of reservation, he pulls off a flake of crust and scoops the berries directly onto his tongue. He chews, swallows, and lets out a contented sigh. A second bite follows. Only then does he speak.

“Damn good pie, this is.” He struggles through a mouthful of crust and berries. A small trickle of juice dribbles down his chin, and he wipes it away with a sheepish glance.

I smile back at him. “It is, isn’t it?”

About the Author

Darcy Anderson · Tufts University

Darcy Anderson studies biology and community health at Tufts. She was raised in Vermont, and her piece is inspired by her own childhood blackberry thicket, a love of New England’s mountains, and a passion for well-made pies. Her story was first published in Tuft’s journal, Canon.

About the Artist

Taylor Walker · Hollins University

Taylor Walker will graduate from Hollins in 2017 with a B.S. in biology and minors in international studies and chemistry. When she’s not identifying plants in Appalachia, she shoots with film. Her artwork first appeared in Cargoes.