How We Carry the Weight of It by Will McMillan
In Will McMillan’s essay “How We Carry the Weight of It,” a young boy works with his family harvesting raspberries. Using highly specific sensory details, McMillan immediately immerses the reader in the child’s-eye view of the work. The day starts early; it’s dark, cold, and wet. Damp air makes breathing feel “like pulling wet cement through my lungs.” The little boy puffs out fog and pretends he’s a dragon. The work is painful, first from the cold and later from the heat that “swaddles the day like a quilt.” “For the family, the family, I’m doing this for the family” becomes the mantra he repeats to himself as he sweats and suffers from back and belly pain. His neck is rubbed raw by the rope that holds up his pail of berries. Childlike, he believes his misery is necessary without entirely understanding why.
In his author’s note, McMillan describes the writing of his essay as an act of translation, transforming a childhood memory into words. “For a very long time,” he writes, “I felt I didn’t speak the language of this particular memory well enough. It’s as if every memory has its own dialect, its own syntax, and I hadn’t yet learned this one’s vocabulary. So, I waited.” After struggling for years to find the right language, he arrived at an image of the raspberry fields in the dark and the story emerged as if it “had been there all along.” McMillan is translating for himself but also for the reader, finding the vocabulary to bring the reader into his childhood experience. Each tiny detail is seen through the child’s eyes, experienced through the child’s body as McMillan brings to life an environment that is foreign to most readers. “But there’s a brushstroke of light at the end of the sky,” the narrator observes, “the antidote to the darkness, to the cold and the wet, is coming.” His description of setting hints at the antidote to misery he will discover, a glimmer of hope for the future. —CRAFT
We arrive in the raspberry fields when it’s dark. It’s dark when we pile out of our secondhand pickup. My father, my mother. My brother and me. It’s dark when we start walking the rutted, sopping dirt road that cuts through the field, where we meet and melt into a vast sea of bodies, the dozens of families who’ve piled out of their secondhand pickups, their cars. All of us merging, ambling forward, a sleepy, reluctant, unremarkable herd. All of us, in the dark.
I jam my hands in my coat pockets, my pants pockets, switching from one to the other. I scrape my shoes across the scalp of the earth. I walk, then I hop, I walk, then I hop. Anything to create friction, some heat, to fight back the cold that’s making me rattle. It’s officially day, but just barely so, and the sun is still lost somewhere out in space. In the dark, June mornings feel like November. My breath pours out of my mouth in a fog. I pretend I’m a dragon, that the fog isn’t fog, that it’s smoke, roiling up from the fire in my belly. Anything that might make me feel warm.
I’m counting the rows as I walk. One row of raspberries. Seven. Twenty-three. Thirty-five. There are hundreds and hundreds of rows. There are hundreds and hundreds of people, which is why it’s important to arrive early. You want a good spot, a good row. That’s what my dad says. The herd of us walking toward a gap in the field where the raspberry fields’ owners are waiting. They’ve got vans loaded with hefty, deep, green plastic trays. On the ground, near the vans, buckets threaded with ropes. The trays you’ll rest at the start of your rows, which you’ll fill with the berries you’ve picked. The buckets you’ll hang down the front of your body, the rope secured across the back of your neck. The buckets you’ll fill with the berries as you pick them.
“Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine,” says a woman bundled in a thick denim jacket. She’s standing outside one of the vans, next to a table and scale, assigning rows to the families that have gathered around her. She looks and behaves like the cigarette she’s smoking—bitter, slowly burning up into ashes. The grooves crisscrossing like canals on her face make me wonder what sort of life put them there. She hands out our trays and our buckets, her hands concealed within oversized gloves. She, like all the other field owners, has a name tag pinned to her jacket—“Kimberly.”
“Sixty-six through sixty-nine,” says my father. “Good rows, those are good rows.” We all nod along though I don’t understand why. One row is the same as the row right beside it, and the same as the row beside that one. Every row is designated by a number before it, on a handwritten sign stabbed into the ground. Each row is built from a cluster of trellises, a few hundred feet long, from which dense raspberry brambles burst from the soil. The brambles are trained to coil up through the trellises, creating a wall of stalks as they grow, of emerald, egg-shaped leaves and knobby, pink berries. Each wall makes up a row, each row being two sides. My father and mother accept their trays and their buckets. Kimberly hands a bucket to me, then my brother.
“Make sure you tie it tight,” she says. “It’ll get heavier the more raspberries you put in it, harder to carry. And you don’t want all your berries to spill out.”
We walk past the forties, the fifties, eventually reaching our four rows in the sixties. In the time we’ve been walking, the wet on the ground has become the wet on my toes. Cracks in my shoes are the culprits. It rained overnight, and the night before. Everything that exists in Creation is dripping. The air tastes damp and cold in my mouth. Breathing it is like pulling wet cement through my lungs. So, I swallow great gulps of it, holding it in, forcing my body to use every bit.
But there’s a brushstroke of light at the end of the sky—the antidote to the darkness, to the cold and the wet, is coming.
“Boys. This is your row.” My father points from my brother and me to row sixty-six. He tosses a tray by the sign. “Don’t screw around. Get to work.”
Our father untethers himself from his children, drifting away through the fields with our mother. They’re off to their rows, dragging their trays like an anchor. In front of our row, my brother and I split in two. He tackles one side. I tackle the other. In the blackness, the raspberries are just a suggestion. I squint, trying to make out their shape, but still. I have to guess where they are in the bushes. Reaching in, teardrops of dew explode on my hand. Ache descends through my skin like melting wax down a candle and my fingers shrivel up to a fist. I hear my brother across from me, the dim rustle of raspberry leaves. I hear the lull of the other families in the field, their talking, their soft, gentle movements. I know that it’s daytime, but it still feels and smells and sounds like it’s nighttime. All I want is to close my eyes where I stand and sink away from awareness, get swallowed whole by a dream. And then my father’s words hammer into me, snapping me back. “Don’t screw around. Get to work.” So, I don’t. And I do.
At first, slight plastic plinks! The first handfuls of berries as they drop into my bucket. As daylight grows, I see better and pick faster, the plinks transforming into faint, squishy thuds as my bucket starts filling. I pick the berries in front of and below me, hunching down for the ones near the ground. I see berries near the tops of the brambles, but I’m nowhere near tall enough. They remain safe, out of reach. For every eight or nine berries I pick, I eat two or three. Still cold on the vine, they’re like sweet, juicy rubber. They soften as daylight comes and brings warmth along with it. Breakfast was a long time ago, just a slice of toast out the door. Now, my stomach is roaring. Two or three berries becomes five or six. The rope rubs a burn on my neck as the bucket, as predicted, gets heavier. I swivel it from my front to my side, then back to my front. No matter where I carry the weight, it’s painful. By the time my bucket is full, there’s a rope-shaped dent being carved into my skin. I scuttle back to the tray, dumping my berries. I do this once, then twice, then a third time, my brother dumping his berries in tandem. The brambles are dense, concealing the bulk of their fruit deep within. They force us to work slowly, methodically. By the time we fill our first tray we’re not even a quarter of the way through our row. My brother and I grab the cracked tray by a corner, easing it slowly back toward the vans and the tables, back to Kimberly. We offer our berries up like a prize.
“Put them here,” she says, pointing at the scale she’s guarding. She keeps her cigarette in her mouth as she talks, as if, like her nose or her eyes, the cigarette is simply a part of her face. Her words hit the air in a tangle of smoke. We do as we’re told, setting the tray and its freight of raspberries on the scale. Kimberly rakes her fingers through our haul, looking for rocks or twigs or anything else that would add weight, that would suggest we’d tried to be tricky. Because sometimes, people try to be tricky. I’ve seen trays stuffed with berries concealing mounds of topsoil, the berries nothing more than a thin film of camouflage. The field owners catch on quickly and know to check closely. Content our tray is legitimate, Kimberly lets the scale do its job. Just over twenty pounds, at sixteen cents per pound. Three dollars and forty-odd cents, give or take. Kimberly hands my brother three singles and change. He shoves the cash down into his pockets, takes hold of the new tray Kimberly hands him, and together we go back to our picking.
When my brother and I hit the midpoint of our row, we hear our mother call out to us. It’s lunchtime, and by now we’ve made three trips back and forth to the scale. We keep our eyes peeled on these trips, rescuing the berries other, less careful pickers have dropped. Every berry adds weight, so every berry means money. We’ve long ago ditched our coats, revealing our crumbling white T-shirts underneath. Our day began just after 5:30. Seven hours and a few thousand berries later and we’ve got nearly eleven dollars between us.
“Let’s see it,” says our father, chewing his way through a bologna and cheese sandwich. Our mother had gone back to our pickup to fetch them. Cross-legged, we sit in a row our parents are working. We have sandwiches, crackers, and a thin plastic thermos of black cherry Kool-Aid. We pass the thermos back and forth, taking sips. Our father rips the crust from his sandwich, tosses it. It takes only moments for ants to bubble up from the soil, waging war for what my father’s discarded. “C’mon, let’s see it. Let’s see the money.”
My brother and I dig into our pockets. I feel the crush of cash on my fingers, feel coins turned slick from my body. We hand our loot over. We don’t ask why, we don’t ask do we have to?, don’t ask if we can keep just a dollar or two for ourselves. Because we don’t need to hear our father say no, you can’t keep just a dollar. We’ve already heard him say it so many times over so many days, over so many weeks. He says it again anyway.
“This money’s for all of us, for the family. Not just for you two. I wish I could keep a buck or two for myself, but I can’t. Neither can your mom. We’re all pitching in here. We’re all pitching in for the family.”
For the family, the family, I’m doing this for the family. I sing it over and over in my head, like a jingle, after lunch, elbows-deep again in the raspberries. I glance up at the sky, at the burning, lemon-drop sun in its center. The cold, early morning is long dead and buried. Heat now swaddles the day like a quilt. For the family, the family, I’m doing this for the family…. I imagine the words being boiled in my mind, evaporating into steam from my ears, mingling with the sweat that’s flowing in streams down my face. My fingers are stained red and sticky. So many berries have found their way down my throat that my belly’s become one giant cramp. Every muscle in my back’s crying out, a gift from the brambles to me, for standing upright on uneven terrain for so long.
But the rope around my neck. That’s the worst part of all. Soaking in sweat, it’s rubbed a raw, throbbing welt across the length of my flesh. I keep thinking the pain will back off, that I’ll grow accustomed or numb. But I’m wrong. The pain is absolute and unreasonable, refusing to let up, refusing to bargain. I wonder how my brother takes the pain. I don’t ask. The bushes are so high and impenetrable they mislead you to think there’s no one across from you. They encourage you to keep working in silence. I only know my brother’s nearby by the timid noise of his rustling. In the stillness, it’s easy to imagine he’s just make-believe, conjured up in my swell of fatigue. I reach up to grab a fat ripened raspberry, and the rope scrapes up and down with the movement. For the family, I think, squinting from sweat, from pain. I’m doing this for the family.
I turn, and it’s Kimberly. She’s planted herself on my side of the row, near the start, hands deep in the raspberry brambles. My brother and I are coming up on the end, nearly finished with our work for the day.
“Hey, get over here.”
I obey, heart racing, hoping my brother heard her call out. I’m hoping he’ll see my shape move away and will move away with me, but now he’s pretending he’s make-believe, too. It’s just me walking back, just me staring up at the figure of Kimberly. Same scowl, same denim jacket in spite of the temperature, but for the first time today she’s missing her cigarette. I gawk at the empty space in her mouth. It’s like I’m seeing her naked.
“You’ve missed some spots here,” she says. “A lot of spots. Take a look.” She rips through the brambles, exposing a bright mass of berries. “You missed these. Right in front of your face and you missed them. And look here….” She moves forward, sinks her hands through the leaves, and like a magician, she makes raspberries appear out of nowhere. “You see these, don’t you? All these berries?” She doesn’t give me a chance to answer before inspecting the tops of the brambles. She reaches in, she gasps, and I know she’s seeing everything I couldn’t reach. I feel disaster wash over me.
“Jesus Christ! Look at all these! Are you even trying to do a good job?” She turns again, stomping her way forward, tearing into the bushes as if clawing open a wound. It’s not hard to imagine what she must be imagining—that it’s my body she’s tearing apart with her hands, not these helpless bundles of raspberries. I start picking behind her, hurriedly, all the spots that I’ve missed, hoping she’ll see that yes, I’m trying to do a good job. Trying to please her absorbs every bit of my focus. For a moment I’ve lost track of my pain. Kimberly stops, pulls her hands from the bushes, and plods her way back to me.
“You go over every part of these bushes again. And I mean every part. Do you understand?” I nod, the cold sweat on my forehead an odd relief from the heat. “You better. Because if you’re working this row then it’s your job to clear it.” She keeps her eyes on me, unblinking, smoldering without the need of her cigarette. She wishes she could get rid of me. The desire’s right there in her eyes. She wishes she could kick me out of the fields for what a horrible job I’m doing. She wishes she could kick all the kids out—me, my brother, every last one of us. Because she’s tired of having to backtrack all our work, tired of telling us we have to do a good job. But she can’t kick us out. These families that come to pick raspberries, that spend the first part of the day shivering and the second part of it roasting. No breaks, no relief, all for sixteen cents per pound? They’re almost nothing but children. For every one or two parents, there are always two or more children. Removing us would obliterate the largest chunk of their workforce. I might not pick quite as fast or reach as high up as all my mom and dad counterparts, but raspberries ripen in weeks, and the time to harvest them is short. Better to get whatever berries they can than let them wither and die. Kimberly turns her back on me, crunching dirt underfoot, off, I suspect, to pull a raid on my brother. I try to find a safe place for the rope on my neck, adjusting my bucket before me. I walk back to where my day first began, and cautiously, carefully start picking again.
“You done?” asks my father. He’s appeared in our row with my mother, holding overflowing trays in their hands. I’ve just dumped my first bucket after Kimberly’s inspection and there’s still the rest of the row to redo. My brother appears, unravels the rope from his neck and dumps his bucket as well. In his shirt streaked with dirt, his mouth and fingers a nightmare of red, he looks like a vampire in miniature. I bring my own vampire fingers to my face, scratching acres of dust from my nostrils. I rest my hand on my neck, feel the pain thriving there, and consider there’s still an entire row to redo. I nod yes, I am done.
We make our way back through the fields. We’re hovering in front of the scales, waiting to relieve ourselves of our trays, waiting to make our last bit of money. There’s plenty of angry daylight remaining, and plenty of families making use of it. But plenty of us are all used up, and this is our last trip for the day. We have our trays in our hands and our buckets still fastened. Standing, waiting, I see grown men and women. I see their sons and their daughters. Looking, I notice two dark-haired girls, roughly the size and shape of my brother. They’re standing in the long, cooling shadow of their mother, who’s also reaching into a backpack. The girls could be any one of us children, all of us dry-washed in a day’s worth of grime. But there’s one thing that makes them extraordinary. I jab my brother, pointing.
“Look at their buckets.”
He looks. The girls are still strapped to their buckets, but rather than being slung down their necks, the buckets are tied snug at their waists. Staring, I see their mother’s even removed the frayed lump of rope. In its place, a length of tan fabric, something like the belt of a bathrobe. The fabric she’s used seems deliberate—something sturdy yet flexible, that doesn’t cut inward or rub, that would adjust to her daughters’ bodies in motion. Keeping them in her shadow, the mother turns each girl around, moving with smart, practiced rhythm. She sets them free of their buckets. Then, she takes a napkin from her pack and wipes the stains from their palms, their wrists, and their fingers. The girls aren’t laughing or playing—they’re just as worn out and sweaty as their mother. But their necks haven’t spent the entire day being mauled, as the weight of their buckets was placed somewhere better, in a place where their weight wouldn’t break them.
Our father puts our trays on the scales. He’s taller than whoever is inspecting our berries, and I’m too small and far back to see over him, to see if it’s Kimberly. I’m worried I’ll hear her voice call out. I’m worried she’ll spot me, see me trying not to be noticed, and from behind her table start shouting. I catch an inkling of smoke in the air. I can’t see her, can’t hear her, but I know. I move back even farther.
We’re walking back on the rutted, sun-withered road. My father, my mother. My brother and me. As a family we resemble each other. We share the same face, the same eyes, the same slimness of frame. From a distance and up close, it’s clear—we belong to each other. But a full day in the fields makes our resemblance uncanny. From the filth that’s squirmed its way up our socks to the sour aroma radiating from our skin, of sweat and sweet raspberries. And when we climb into our rusting secondhand pickup, when I see my dull, dirty face reflected in the spiderweb cracks of its windshield, I see that resemblance escape from the present and wrap its grip around the throat of my future. A future where I drive alone in the dark. Where I spend my days running back and forth in a field, tired hands splattered crimson and freezing. A future where I suffer for whatever money I make, working sunup to sundown, carrying a full day of burdens down the length of my chest.
Wedged beside me in our truck, my brother wipes the backs of his hands on his knees. I see the clean spot he makes on his knuckles, so striking compared to the rest of him, and I can’t help but remember a young mother and what I watched her do for her daughters. That’s still my dirty face I see in the windshield, but I wonder if it’s possible to see something more. To see more than just stains when I look at myself. To see a future where I don’t resemble my parents at all. A future where I choose where pain rests on my body, and where I learn for myself a new way to carry it.
WILL McMILLAN is a queer writer born and raised in the untamed wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where he still lives today. His essays have appeared The Sun, Bending Genres, CHEAP POP, and Atticus Review, among many others. In 2021 his essays were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best American Essays. His essay, “Our Familiar Faces,” was listed as Notable in The Best American Essays 2022, and his work will be featured in The Best Small Fictions 2023. Find him on Twitter at @willmcmn.
Featured image by Ashim D’Silva, courtesy of Unsplash.