[what does not belong to you] | Juliana Wnuk

My mother was preparing soup. There was so much soup I could have sat in the pot and boiled along with the carrots and lentils. She was crying, but she was also chopping onions.

I left my mom and her tears over soup and ran outside to the end of our field where the forest begins. The path through the trees is dead leaves and sad, mushy, worn-away ground. It weaves down a hill, to a clearing at the bottom where a stream trickles by.

Once I’d fallen in the stream because I was playing with my old dog before she died. I was throwing her stick into the water because I liked seeing her shake after she climbed out, to watch all the little droplets soar around her, but I tripped on some stones. It isn’t a deep stream, but my knees ripped open on the rocks in the creek bed.

My mother used to tell me animals sense when humans are in danger or hurting, but my dog didn’t come over or even look at me when I bled in the stream. She was sniffing around old deer tracks in the mud.

Our clearing is the only small patch of land next to the water. The banks in both directions are thick with trees and brush, so I took off my shoes and waded into the water. It was hot because August had come, and there were tiny red and black beetles flying everywhere, but I waved my hands to shoo them away.

I started walking down the stream but watching every step because the memory of bloody hands and knees taunted me. I wanted to walk down the stream forever, or until it ended, whichever came first. My toes were tickled by algae clinging to pebbles that were upturned and rudely disturbed by my walking.

After a while I came to a stop. There was a muddy bank up ahead and I could see a giant bush in the grassy area above.

I walked to the bush. The sun was bright.

The bush was engulfed in blueberries.

Hello, a voice said. What are you doing here at my bush?

There was no one around me, but the voice was clear like glass and I knew I wasn’t imagining it.

Hello, I said. My name is Elie. I walked here through the water.

I looked around carefully but I still didn’t see who was speaking.

In here, the soft voice said. I’m inside.

Inside where? I thought. I looked into the bush, through the green leaves and swollen berries. Eyes met mine in shadow, but they looked brown. There was a girl in the bush. She was sitting with her knees under her, in a linen dress with spaghetti straps.

What are you doing in there? Who are you? I asked.

Well, this is my bush, I live in here. I’m also a girl—I’m a blueberry girl. Just like there are blackberry girls and sometimes gooseberry girls, she informed me. What are you doing out there?

That makes sense, I thought.

Well, I live out here with my mother. We have a house up the stream, through the trees and across the field, I said.

I suppose you’d like a blueberry? She asked.

She certainly had plenty, living inside a blueberry bush. I nodded my head and sat down on the ground. Many berries had fallen off the branches, and I crushed a few under my knees when I knelt. Sitting low, I could see inside more clearly. There were stains. Blueberry girl had blue in her and on her. Her space inside the bush was small and twigs broke off when she reached her hand out to me. The hand she gave was frail and I could see her veins, which were part of the blue inside her.

I held out my hand and she tipped the berries gently into my cupped palm.

Somehow I felt as though I should not eat them.

Can I eat them? I wondered aloud.

Her laugh was confined by the bush. It did not echo or fill any of the space between us. I leaned in to hear the tinkling, pleasant sound.

You can, she said. But please, only take blueberries if I offer. It’s rude to just take them.

I popped the blueberries into my mouth all at once. The skin of the berries burst in my mouth, and when I wiped the juice away from my lips there were purple blots on my hand.

Blueberry girl stared at me the whole time, smiling a smile with a small bottom lip. Her arms were thin and seemed bruised, but the bruises were only purple juice stains.

What now? I asked. I don’t want to go home, thinking my mother was probably still crying over soup.

I wish I could let you in, but there’s only one girl allowed per bush. I came across this one years ago and now we wouldn’t live very well without each other, she explained.

I pouted. She didn’t look much older than me, only about eleven or twelve. Why was she telling me that I couldn’t go in the bush when there was room enough for me?

Her smile dropped away. There was a fearful look in her face and she rolled off her knees to hug them instead.

You can visit me, though. Come back tomorrow. I’m here always, she said. I can give you more berries.

This made me smile again. I was so happy to have tomorrow to see her.

Are we friends now? I asked.

We can be, she said.

I ran back through the stream, forgetting about rocks that might trip me. Everything blurred by. I was a shadow of a girl.

Where are your shoes? Mother asked.

I was panting, dirt stuck to my legs and feet because I’d left my shoes down by the water.

I met a blueberry girl! I said happily. She was like me but she lived inside a blueberry bush!

Nonsense, Mother said. Girls don’t live in blueberry bushes.

She turned back to doing the dishes. There were a lot of dishes. She threw me a rag and said to rinse off outside.

If only I could be in that bush, I thought, then I would be so much happier.

I didn’t dream that night, but woke up with the light of the sun, the darkness gone. I took off straight for the stream. My shoes were there by the water, muddy and a little wet from the morning dew. Leaping past them, I felt the stones under my feet but kept running.

There it was, the blueberry bush.

I slowed down and walked slowly up to her, or it. A blue hand peeped out and waved me toward her.

Hello! I said. Do you sleep in here, too?

Again, I kneeled on the ground. The fearful look I’d seen on her face the day before had disappeared, and she was simply a blueberry girl again.

I do sleep in here, she said. I don’t leave. You’ve never met a berry bush girl, have you?

I haven’t, I admitted. You’re the only one I know.

I suppose we aren’t easy to find. It would be bad for people to find a girl living in a bush for a home, she said.

That was true, I supposed.

Does every bush have a girl? I asked.

No, she said. A lot of bushes these days don’t need one to live. I found this one because I knew it needed me and now here I am. It takes care of me and I do the same for it.

I nod. Understandable. I reached for blueberries, but she yelled out at once for me to wait. I looked at her in shame because I’d forgotten she said I could only have berries if she offered.

I’m sorry for yelling, she said. But you almost grabbed berries when they weren’t yours to grab.

She softened and quickly extended her tinted hand out, pouring ripe blueberries to me.

Grateful and still a little ashamed, I ate them slowly this time. Each one popped in my mouth. I could feel the skin break easily because there was just so much flesh inside. There wasn’t as much light as the day before, as large and looming clouds covered the sun.

She was staring at me, and I felt upset. I thought, I wasn’t allowed in there with her yesterday and today I can’t grab my own berries? I could feel my lower lip stick out further than normal.

It’s going to rain, she pointed out. You should get home before it does.

Can I come back again after? Or tomorrow? How long are you here? I ask.

I never leave. I’m always here, she said. You can come back later—I’ll be here. But please, remember it isn’t nice to take what isn’t yours. It hurts.

I stood. The rain hadn’t started, but the air was heavy with humidity. It felt like I was breathing water and not oxygen. Darkness when it’s supposed to be light is always frightening. I don’t like storms, and I hurried back home. Mother still wasn’t up yet.

The thunder began, the sky cracking, and the rain started to fall.

I sat inside all day. Mother rose around noon and warmed up a pot of soup for us to eat with stale bread. The rain was watering our field, even though it hadn’t grown anything for years. We only had garden, but at least it was getting water. It’s nice how rain doesn’t pick and choose what gets water and what doesn’t. It just falls and everything underneath it gets wet.

A few days went by slowly because there was nothing to do. The rain was still pouring, but the thunder and lightning had ended. Mother told me to go to sleep when night approached, and I would dream of a violet-colored shadow creeping over our farm. In the dream I was alone—Mother was not there. The blue of the sky was overtaken by deep purple, and sinister, barbed beasts fell from the darkened sky to drag themselves up the field towards our house. I ran to lock the door and stared at whatever was coming toward me, but I knew if it got too close I would have nowhere to run.

Then everything shifted and somehow I was at the stream. The purple was gone and I was alone, sitting in the water, with bleeding knees.

I must have cried in the dream because I woke up on a wet pillow. The morning was bright, and I ate oatmeal before doing my chores. I knew blueberry girl would be out there, but I was tired and upset. I knew she wouldn’t let me in again.

Our field was mushy from all the rain, and mud splattered around my ankles. I ran through the stream until I reached her bush. Those red and black beetles were flitting about again. I swatted them away every time they came close.

I’m back again! What would you want to let me in there, I asked.

Blueberry girl peeked out from inside to stare at me.

I don’t need anything from out there. I have everything I need in here, she said.

I wanted what she had in there.

I don’t much like coming to visit you. You’re not being very nice, I said. I won’t come back if you keep me out.

I thought maybe the threat of never coming back when she was probably lonely would change her mind. She just stared and held her thin upper arms in opposite hands.

You don’t have to come back, she said. I could be your friend, but if you’re mad, please go.

A huff of air escaped me, and without thinking, I reached out to grab a handful of blueberries.

Her eyes grew wide and she reached out to try and stop me, but I slapped her hand away as easily as I could flick away summer beetles. I laughed when she cried for me to stop and I ate the berries in my hands.

There were tears on her face, leaving streaks of purple on her cheeks.

Please, please, she begged. Please don’t, why did you do that?

I ignored her and reached for more. I snagged the hem of my dress to create a little basket for carrying berries, and I picked berries until my hand ached and my dress skirt was heavy with blueberries. They weren’t hers alone to give.

Eventually I realized I was picking in quiet. Her sobs had disappeared. I didn’t bother saying goodbye before walking away, back up the stream.

I held my dress skirt tightly so the blueberries wouldn’t fall out. When I made it home, I called underneath mother’s window for her to come down. Weary and with red eyes, she came out with a giant silver bowl. I dropped all the berries in, and the entire bowl was filled.

Mother blinked away her tiredness and asked where I’d found all the blueberries. I told her I’d taken them from the blueberry girl’s bush. She rolled her eyes.

Show me, she said. We can go get more.

I smiled. I knew she’d have to believe me now.

We lined baskets with dish cloths and strode out through the field, down the wooded path, and to the stream together. A sick joy radiated through me when I thought of exposing blueberry girl and proving my mother wrong.

Elie, mother scolded, when she saw that the stream was the last obstacle. She took off her shoes anyway.

We walked down the stream slowly and carefully, for mother had cried out how slippery the rocks were.

When I saw the clearing, I gasped. The bush was there, but it was dead.

Brittle and brown, the branches were exposed. No more green, buttery leaves. The berries were gone, too. Even the ones that had fallen and mushed when I’d walked upon them. The blueberry girl was not inside.

I touched the dry branches. My heart hurt and my stomach squelched in on itself.

Mother stood behind me, with her arms crossed. Somehow she didn’t look angry. Her eyes began to water like they always did, in their bottomless blue.

Then she turned back home, splashing through the stream, and back to our fields.

I turned back to the bush and crawled into the cage of branches, to sit inside the dead bush. With wet tears on my cheeks, I was wreathed in lifeless, delicate boughs.

Juliana Wnuk is a Denver-based writer and a relatively recent undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She seeks deliberate learning through activism, literature, research, and nature.