When I was younger, my family and I lived in a rural part of the state that didn't see much of civilization. We lived in a small hamlet of about 93 people across nearly forty square miles. It was set back in the woods, and at times was a mystical place during my childhood and at other times it was downright terrifying.
Our community, if you want to call it that, was strung together with a network of unkempt dirt roads that the count had long forgotten. Potholes and boulders lined the sides of the roads and it wasn't uncommon for overgrowth to make passage impossible until someone chopped it away. It was on one of these roads on a late June afternoon that the story begins. My brother and I had just finished a triathlon of basketball, catch, and playing in the pool. After we dried off, our parents told us to get dressed, we were going blackberry picking. One of the perks of the overgrowth on the roads was that a large portion of it was blackberry bushes, and being on the roadside and not on anyone's property, we were free to legally pick as many as we wanted. My brother and I lit up at the news because the blackberry haul each year was turned into jams and cobblers and also just eaten after only being washed. Blackberries were our candy.
We dressed down in our thorn resistant wear: Cotton long-sleeves and denim jeans. It was late enough in the afternoon that the heat of the day had dissipated to a comfortable 72 degrees, so the full body clothing wasn't too much of a hassle. My brother and I each grabbed a bucket, one of those cheap Walmart Easter buckets, and we all loaded into the van. My dad drove us down the road to our normal blackberry spot and we all got out of the car.
"Don't wander off too far," Mom told us as my brother and I searched for the optimum patch of berries. We expected big, juicy berries that would inevitably stain our hands and probably be thrown at each other in jest, but what we found was disappointment. What berries there were were dried and shriveled black husks that had been subject to the heat of the past few days. What hadn't been claimed by the sun had been carried off by birds. We looked for a few more minutes, going deeper into the brambles. Perhaps, because it was so thorny, the birds hadn't come in here nor had the sun reached through the thicker canopy. But still, the only berries we found were of the shriveled and dried sort. I gazed, disheartened, into the tick of the woods past the brambles. I imagined that there was something out there, waiting for us to cross the thorny threshold into its territory. The berries may have dried up, but we were two plump, juicy kids ready to be eaten by a beast with innumerable teeth.
I shook the thought from my head, telling myself that it was nonsense and that I was almost thirteen and needed to remove such childish thoughts from my head. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling. The woods held wonder and magic, but they also concealed the things that lurked in the shadows beyond the reach of human sight. Having successfully spooked myself, I nudged my brother and told him we should go back and tell our parents of our findings. He agreed, slightly irked that our endeavor had yielded such poor results. We dozed our way through the brambles, stomping down dead vines and pushing aside the thorny branches that tried to catch us. I emerged back on the roadside with numerous scratches on my hands, but it wasn't any different than any other year so I held little worry. We had tried wearing gardening gloves one year, but we either ended up crushing the berries or the gloves snagged on the thorns. Either way, we decided that bare-hand was the way to go, so we suffered the scratches in exchange for the berries.
Mom and Dad were leaning against the van, buckets at their feet, talking. They saw us and asked if we had found anything. Our harvest was mirrored by theirs. We all climbed back into the van and decided to drive up and down the road until we found another patch of berries. I gazed out the window the whole time, imagining the beast I had thought up sprinting through the woods, catching the scent of my thoughts and following us. It was insatiable, and wouldn't stop chasing us until our meat was in its belly. I shook my head again to clear my mind. Too much Stephen King, I thought.
After circling back and taking a different route, we found a patch of berries that boasted full, almost bursting, fruit. My spirits soared as I saw the berries, my mind washing away all thoughts of the nameless horror with visions of cobbler and jam. Childish excitement flooded my veins as I practically leaped from the van. My mother sent out the same warning as before and we absentmindedly agreed as we rushed over the ditch and into the brambles. The berries were huge, at least the size of a quarter. Some of them were almost past ripe and the juices were starting to spill from the splits in the flesh. These didn't go into the bucket, but rather were eaten right there. We were young and lived in the middle of nowhere, eating unwashed fruit wasn't a concern we had.
The amount of berries we gathered were huge. In only five minutes, I had completely covered the bottom of my bucket by about an inch. I moved to another berry bush when a scent stopped me in my track. It was bitter, sweet, and smelled...salty. I called to my brother and asked him if he could smell that. He sniffed the air and made a face. We had trouble placing it at first but then we remembered one day at school with a classroom's air conditioner had broke and the same smell filled the room. Sour water. As we moved further into the berry patch, the stench strengthened. Despite the fact that the berries were a lot bigger here, we decided to turn back and go find another area. We retraced our steps and found ourselves back at the roadside. We heard our parents romping through the berry bushes and decided to try and catch up with them. They had almost filled a bucket between them and jokingly asked why we were so far behind. I told them about the sour smell and they advised us to stay away from it. Wanting to fill our buckets, we joined them in their harvest. The berries in this area were large as well, but the stench wasn't present. We trudged nearly a hundred feet from the road into the brambles before we came upon a property marker. We decided to go no further and instead my parents suggested that we look where my brother and I had stopped, despite their previous advice. I brought this up to them, but they waved it off as the whole "We are adults, we know what we're doing" thing. So, like dutiful soldiers, my brother and I followed our parents into the fray of brambles and thorn.
After five minutes of picking, our parents lead us to the spot where we had stopped picking. The smell lingered in the still summer air. My dad sniffed and said that it was nothing to worry about, it was just the smell of standing water. My mom's eyes grew wide at the size of the berries, exclaiming how good they would taste in a cobbler. The thought of the dessert wiped away the doubt that lingered in the back of my head and we began to pick. We picked until each of us had a full bucket and still more taunted us as they hung from the vines that had grown unchecked. Mom picked a berry off and plopped it in her mouth, smiling at the sweetness of it. Dad followed suit, as did my brother and I. A regular blackberry has a pleasant sweetness with a small tinge of bitter, but these were like globs of honey. A single berry seemed sweeter than the entire haul that we had gathered so far. Its nectar flooded my mouth and threw a smile upon my face as my eyes widened at the taste. The aroma the chewed fruit filled my nose as I reached for another berry, another, and another. Ten minutes must have passed as we mindlessly gorged ourselves on the fruit, mindless of anything else. Popping one final berry into his mouth, my brother looked up at the darkening sky. The sun was setting. We had come out to the patch at around 4 o'clock. Had we really been picking berries that long?
My dad made not of this and we all packed into the van, our bellies full and our spirits happy. We didn't eat supper than night. Instead, we just put all of our haul into colanders and washed them in the sink. Leaving them to drain over night. I fell into a deep sleep that night. I remember because it was the last restful sleep I would get for a while.
The next morning, I made my way into the kitchen where our parents were bagging, smashing, and cooking the berries. The bagged berries would be frozen and be eaten as snacks, the smashed would go on to become cobblers and jams, the latter of which would be sold to our neighbors, and the cooked berries were being reduced down to a syrup for later during breakfast. I asked them if they needed help and they said they had it, so I woke up my brother and convinced him to go on a walk through the woods with me.
When we set out among the trees, the sun had just started to crest the clouds of the morning. Through the green of the sparse canopy, the sky burned a magnificent pink as the morning stars faded from view and the moon stood solitary in the earth-shine. The air was fresh, as it usually was in the woods, and was still cool. Birds tweeted as we made our way through the woods, no real goal in mind for the hike. We each found a wizard staff, a gnarled tree branch to use as a walking stick, and we moved deeper into the forest. The canopy was thicker here and the sky had began to take on the pale blue of morning as the pink melted away into the scattered clouds.
We came across a creek that bubbles through a trench in the earth and started throwing pebbles in it. I heard the crumple of leaves and was immediately snapped out of my serene mindset as visions of the nameless beast from the berry patch flooded my thoughts. I saw it in my head to be lurking behind us, its claws extended from marred hands and its shoulders hunched in anticipation, waiting for the right moment to attack. It was angry, I knew, that we took its berries. It was what we had smelled yesterday when we were picking. We took its food and now we WERE the food. I tensed up as I imagined it slowly creeping up behind us, yellow drool dripping from its rotten teeth, its eyes filled with sick and hatred, and an insatiable hunger in its belly. I couldn't take it anymore and I whipped around, ready to face the beast.
Nothing. A sigh of relief removed most apprehension, but not all. It was then that my brother groaned. He was on the ground, sitting in a fetal state, clutching his stomach. I dropped the pebbles in my hand and skittered over to him, alarmed.
"What's wrong?! Are you okay?" He batted me away and bent over to his hands and knees. He yelled in pain as he clutched his stomach with one hand and a sudden spout of vomit erupted from his mouth. I reeled back in horror as it splashed into the creek. His whole body heaved as he collapsed onto his face, puke ejecting from his mouth and nose and mixing with the dirt. I tried to lift him up but he feebly batted me away, grumbling something incoherent before another vocal explosion of vomit oozed out of him. He tried to sit up, but the way he clutched his stomach told me that he was in too much pain to do so. Instead, as I stood there watching like a helpless fool, he smothered his face into the vomit mud as more and more flowed from him with each violent wretch like pus from an infection.
Tears streamed down his and my own face as I watched my brother wriggle in his own vomit, unable to move due to the pain. I stood in fear, unsure what to do. And then it hit me. At first I thought the urge to puke was just an affect of witnessing him puke, but then I felt the pain. At first, it was like gas discomfort. But then, it moved. It moved! The pain wriggled in my guts and I felt a hot column of vomit surge through my esophagus. I wasn't ready and it exploded through my closed lips and out my nose in a blinding pain. The wriggling went deeper into my flesh and soon I had joined my brother on the ground, the sounds of my own retching vomit drowning him out as I shut my eyes and let the dark of my vision turn white with the blinding pain that surged through me. I wasn't even aware of the hot refuse throttling out of my throat after a while and time seemed to stop as whatever it was in my guts gnawed away at my being and squirmed deeper into me than I thought possible. The scent eventually hit me and caused even more vomit to erupt from me and muddy the ground in which I writhed. It smelled sweet, like blackberries. As another acidic wave pulsed up through my throat, the blinding white turned to grey, and finally to black.
I don't know how much time passed before I was nudged awake. I resisted opening my eyes, but a sudden flash of pain blasted my eyelids open as I rolled over into the mud and heaved. Nothing came of it except mucus and spit and it was the same for the next three heaves. Finally, I got control of my breathing and focused on the pain. It wasn't like earlier, moving and squirming, but was instead localized to the middle of my guts. It felt like a throbbing mass, but it was manageable. My brother stood above me, his face and side caked with mud. He leaned on his walking stick and prodded me once again with his foot.
"We have to go home," he croaked weakly, still holding his stomach. I asked him if he had throbbing pain too and he nodded. I stood up and it felt like every single one of my joints had sandpaper between them. Dried mud clung to my skin and shirt, smelling of blackberries and earth, but the throbbing pain the want to get home overpowered any will I had to brush off the dried dirt. I painfully retrieved my own walking stick and we slowly made our way home. Each step was agony. The forest seemed like an endless plain of infinite trees, the songs of despair whistling through their leaves and branches on the light summer breeze. No birds chirped and no animals scurried as we shuffled through the leave covered floor of the forest. Even though my brother walked next to me, a sense of singularity and doom descended upon me and I felt that, at any moment, death would claim me for its own. An immense sadness pulsed through my veins as the throbbing mass reminded me of my own mortality. there was no future to this life in that moment and my only purpose was to suffer. As we made our way back to our house, two more surges of puke found their way through my mouth and onto the earth. My brother collapsed once.
"We just.... we need homesss ands...... mom dad will help uth," I slurred as I painfully leaned over to help him up. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw our house in the distance through the damnable trees and thicket. Our arms were scratched to hell from the branches and thorns of our crawl back to salvation and the throbbing had moved once more through my guts, but the sight of home sparked a hope in me that I cannot describe.
We stumbled drunkenly up the stairs to our front door and weakly turned the doorknob. The smell that greeted us extinguished the hope that our parents would help us. The scent of sweet blackberries and earth filled my nose I collapsed onto the vomit soaked carpet. My brother stumbled over me as hot tears of frustration and pain flowed down my cheeks. I was laying face to face with my mother, her own cheeks flushed red. I remember looking into her bloodshot eyes and thinking that this is how I must look. The whites of her eyes were red and her skin, apart from the scarlet flush of her cheeks, was pale and clammy. A line of vomit and mucus dripped from her nose as her mouth lay open. Her labored breath blew the stench of the berry puke into my face, forcing a flow of my own refuse to flow out of my slack jaw. Her eyes widened as she erupted, splashing my face and mixing with my own. It was a vicious cycle until both of us heaved air. My brother, having heard our wretches, had convulsions of his own and I felt his wetness creep over the carpet and soak my back. The bitter taste of it all lingered in my mouth, counteracting its sickly sweet smell. I watched as Mom's radiant blue eyes rolled back into her head and her jaw opened more. Her breathing became more labored and the fear of my own death was washed away as the fear of my mother dying flooded my being.
I summoned as much strength as the pain would allow and stood up, using the slippery wall as a support. My brother was curled into a fetal position as I stepped over him. I used the wall for support as I searched for my dad in the stench ridden house. I found him unconscious next to the phone, which lay on the floor. The same sickly sweet purge lay around him and I knew that it had to have been the berries that made us sick, it was the only thing we all had in common. A sudden surge of pain throbbed through my guts and forced me to the floor, where I fell into the vomit-logged carpet. I rolled to my side, the floor moistly squelching beneath me, and I grabbed the phone. the simple act of walking to this point and reaching for the phone had taken all my energy. As my labored breath roughly ran through my burned throat, I dialed 911 and put the handset on speaker.
After slurring an explanation to the 911 operator and giving her our home address, the darkness of unconsciousness dared to take me once again. that is, until the throbbing in my guts suddenly shot into my bowels.
"No no no," I cried pathetically as I felt hot mush run down my side and pool int my pants leg. The throbbing pain was now a stream of burning heat that threatened to pull my insides out of me. It kept coming with splotches and eruptions of hot shit. Helpless sobs wracked my body as I heard the same sounds erupt from my dad and the stench of death arose from our bowels. I felt it flow out of the foot of my pants and into my shoes as I lay there, paralyzed. A new fear strung a chord within me as I felt something wriggle against my leg. No, not something, many things. I felt the tiny stick of insect legs prick against my skin as whatever I released from my body crawled over my soiled form. It was alive and it had been inside of me! Darkness finally took me as another spurt erupted from my bowels.
I saw white when I woke up. At first, I thought that Death had taken me and that I was in the afterlife, but the beeping of my pulse told me otherwise. I became acutely aware of a needle in my hand and the uncomfortable angle of my bed. Hospital. I tried to sit up, but I was too weak. I turned my head and saw a nurse dressed in Minnie Mouse scrubs. I remember those damn scrubs so vividly, they are burned into my mind. I remember the look of shock, joy, and relief on the nurses face as I asked for water, and I remember the sadness that moved across her smile like day turning to night. I got my water and fell back asleep, wondering why she had been sad.
I came to what seemed like seconds later, but after I cleared my brain of fog, the same nurse in the same scrubs told me that it had been more than a week since I had asked for the water. More IVs were stuck into my arms and I felt, for the most part, okay. I could tell that she was hiding something from me in the way her sadness seemed to keep itself below her surface. I asked her why she was sad, and she said that I would have to wait for the doctor.
Over the next two days, I slowly regained my strength by eating soft and liquid foods and walking slowly to the bathroom. the throbbing pain was no longer present, though my guts were very tender. On the third day, the doctor came in. He checked my vitals for himself, asked me how I was feeling, and then told me to ready myself because he had some bad news. I kinda already knew what he was going to say and hot tears started to run down my face before he broke the news. Mom had succumbed to the berries, her body had lost too many fluids. I cried and told him that none of this should have happened.
"They were only blackberries!" I sobbed snottily into the doctor's lab coat. I cried until my tears had all been spent, and then I wailed until my lungs burned with acid and my throat turned to dust. The doctor held me the whole time, staying silent and squeezing me gently. I cried myself to sleep on his shoulder.
I dreamed that my brother and I were back in the brambles, being stared at by the beast of the woods. No longer were its shoulders hunched, no longer were its eyes full of hate. Its matted hair swayed in the breeze as it approached us. Neither of us felt danger from the beast. It stopped a few feet in front of us, just behind the wall of brambles. It opened its maw, revealing hundreds of shiny, needle sharp teeth. It spoke, its voice both deep and high pitched, like the rumble of thunder intertwined with the shrill of summer cicadas.
"This ground is poisoned. All that grows here is sour, ill, dead. Do not eat again from the bitter earth. The price has been paid for your trespasses." It faded into the dark backdrop of the woods and my dreams slowly merged into something beyond recall.
Over the next week, I regained my strength through an hour of supplemental therapy a day and started to eat solid foods. I was told that my brother and father had regained a good amount of their strength and that they were on their way back to good health.
At the end of the week, my dad and brother walked into my room along with a man I had never seen before. He introduced himself as a grief counselor. It was the normal "What do you do now" stuff and he gave us a variety of resources and hotlines to aid us in the grievance and recovery.
We hired a cleanup team to redo the house and stayed in a motel about thirty minutes from home for the next two weeks. One night, as I was getting ready for bed, my brother noticed a large zit on the back of my leg. I looked down and saw a half dollar sized red mound with a sickly white head. I looked at my brother and noticed that he had one just under his sleeve on his upper arm. We brought them up to our dad and he said that he had noticed one on him as well. He told us not to pop them, as it might lead to an infection. Figuring that it would go away on its own, I snuggled into bed.
The next morning I was awoken into dim light by a burning sensation in my leg. No, not just my leg, everywhere! I whipped back the covers and cried out in horror as I saw that my lower legs were covered in large zits as were my arms and I felt tender spots beneath my shirt. Horrified, I started bawling as I shook my brother awake to tell him but he cried out in pain and I felt something hot ooze out onto my hand. My dad was woken by the commotion and groaned in discomfort as he rolled in his bed to turn on the light and see what was happening. As the lights flooded the room, I saw that my brother was also covered in these mounds, and what's more, they were pulsing! I looked at my hand where I felt the ooze and reeled in disgust as I saw a maggot inch its way up my thumb. I fell onto the floor in my stupor felt my own zits burst like skin bubble-wrap. I cried in pain as I got to my knees and felt worms, maggots, whatever they were, crawl from the zits all over me. One after another, they emerged from the popped infections and tumbled down me, covered in blood and pus. I heard the plap against the carpeted floor of the room.
"OH MY GOD!" my dad shouted as he stumbled out of bed, his own infections popping audibly as he slammed into the wall. My brother was a bit more careful, and painfully eased himself out of bed. Dad picked me up, the pressure from his grip allowing more maggots to crawl out of each of us, and bolted out the door with my brother behind us. We went back to the hospital and the the emergency room balked at the sight of three people dripping maggots from their skin. The people in the waiting room either ran out in disgust or stared in horror. We were swept in immediately and the same doctor that had let me unleash on his shoulder saw us once again. He stared, medically intrigued at the amount of maggots oozing out of our collective flesh. We were put in isolation and administered a number of drugs. After another stint in the hospital lasting another two weeks, the maggot pools dried up. We had to have minor surgery done to remove each and every maggot pod. Luckily for all of us, each pod was only in the skin and surface muscle. They had avoided our more vital organs.
The doctors were baffled. They drilled us with questions and we all referred to the berries that had made us incredibly sick to begin with. A frozen sample of berries was taken from our home and, after just a few days of analyzing the berries, we received word on what had made us sick.
Ocypus laciniatus lays its eggs in the ripening fruit of blackberry bushes. The larvae of this beetle are incredibly small and eat the flesh and nectar of the fruit. The beetle only chooses the sweetest berries to lay its eggs in and it does so by splitting open the berry and putting them inside. That day, when we gorged ourselves on the berries, we introduced hundreds of these larva into our bodies. We had been being eaten from the inside out.