Ode to chiggers

Berry picking here is not for the faint of heart

| 08 Jun 2023 | 02:56

Despite the early hour, the air was already humid, and days of rain had left the bank slippery with rotting weeds and leaves. Still, it was the perfect time for berry picking, just after the fruit turned deep purply-blue and before the crows cleaned out the vines. As I paused at the top of the hill, gnats swarmed my face, and a line of sweat trickled down my bra. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt under a long-sleeved flannel shirt buttoned tightly at the throat and wrists, knee socks, knee-high muck boots, a neck buff and a wide-brimmed hat. I was decidedly overdressed, but berry picking here was not for the faint of heart.

Working my way into the thicket, I checked the ground for roots, branches, and, especially, the tell-tale signs of copperheads: thick-hourglass-patterned bodies, flat, triangular heads. I picked carefully, moving in concentric circles, parting branches and dropping ripe fruit into the metal mixing bowl I carried in one hand. High in the pines, a murder of crows complained, my presence an intrusion on their breakfast buffet. In the field below, hens scratched in the dirt, and ten goats, two bucks in one, three does and their offspring in the other, wandered from the two adjacent barns to wait under the overhang for the dewy grass to dry.

The bucks were past their prime, their seasons of ravenous mating behind them, but they nonetheless bellowed robustly across the pasture to their owe-time lovers – two caprine catcallers. Once, my body, too, had burned with a fierce, spiky heat. Once, when I was young, I had leapt from a second-story ledge to meet my lover by the side of a moonlit road where he sat, car idling, windows rolled down, Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from the tape deck. Once, I did lines on a floor-length mirror with a wannabe hippie I almost loved. Once I absconded to the Midwest to live in a boxcar next to an abandoned house where wild foxes roamed.

Now, my life had become a series of tamped-down cravings, my indulgences whittled down to a manageable few – punk-purple hair dye, a second glass of Chardonnay, an afternoon spent binge-watching Schitt’s Creek. And what did I expect at my age anyway? When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who corrected her students for using the word starving on the grounds that the word was overkill, too big a word for a gentle gnawing in the guts that signaled it was time for lunch or a snack, too flippant in light of all those people around the world who were actually starving. After all, what did a bunch of nine-year-olds know about hunger, about desire of any kind, really? And what did I know of it now, all these years later, after a lifetime spent yearning for something always just beyond my reach? Still, just when I thought it might be gone for good, here in the berry patch, I hungered for a new sensation, something to pierce through the ordinariness of my life and remind me that I was still among the living.

But, of course, there was always a price to pay, and here in the blueberry thicket, the cost for an extravaganza of blueberry delights was steep: a good, strong dose of chiggers. Chiggers were the stealthy, vile, microscopic, spider-like creatures that infested this thicket. When you were least expecting it, they burrowed in the warmest parts of your body – under your arms, behind your knees, under your breasts, between your legs. The larvae bore holes in your skin, then feasted on the cells inside. According to an old wives’ tale, a thin layer of clear nail polish applied to the welts would smother the mites inside, but, actually, by the time you noticed the itching, the bugs had actually already fallen off, their feeding frenzy over, the satiated larvae well on their way to maturity. You could mitigate the damage, batten the hatches, brace for the long, sleepless night ahead, but once the chiggers had had a go at you, there wasn’t much you could do.

Still. I wanted what I wanted: jam, pancakes, syrup, smoothies, cobbles, cakes, muffins, compotes, tarts. By the time the sun rose over the pasture, and the goats had ventured into the tall grass, I had stripped the lower branches of berries, but clusters hung high in one of the bushes, just beyond my grasp. I tried reachinvg the fruit from different angles – from the side, from underneath, from the steepest part of the bank – to no avail. Finally, I jumped, grabbed the limb, pulled it down, and pinned it beneath one arm. Spiders and inchworms poured into my shirt. I shook them off and wedged the limb deeper into my armpit so that one hand was free to pick the berries that now dangled chest-high in front of me.

Later that night, when I woke frantically clawing the welts between my legs and on the nipple of my right breast, I would wonder if this was the moment when the chiggers had scuttled down the neck of my shirt and into my bra, into the soft pits of my underarms, the warm waistband of my jeans. The itching would not be pain, exactly, more a cousin of pain – fierce and nauseating – and I would vow once again to be more careful next time, more prudent. But in the midst of the berry patch, I was emboldened, careless, maybe even carefree (“Be childlike, not childish,” my hippie lover once told me), and I picked and picked and picked until my fingers were blue, my hair damp and frizzy, until visions of blueberry pancakes drenched in blueberry syrup oozed over me, leaving only the hot, thick stillness of this place.

Excerpted from Bushwhacking: How to Get Lost in the Woods and Write Your Way Out by Jennifer McGaha published by Trinity University Press. The piece originally appeared in Still: The Journal, an online publication featuring Appalachian writers/writing.