The Strawberry Effect

Lauren Schott

A symphony of color hung in the skies above Nicholas Harris’ head. The sun had exceeded even its own expectations that morning in producing resplendent reds and yellows. Black slated roofs and aluminum, accident-proof car tops obliterated the view for most people–people who rushed to work or golf or home after an extended evening party–but Harris had been awake for several hours already, tending the strawberry fields despite the arthritic bones that complained with painful pops and pangs with his every movement.

Harris did at some point raise his eyes from the ground at his feet to the sky, and some small corner of his mind registered the word “beautiful” in response to the colors before him. But some larger portion of his mind distracted him with the need to wipe the lingering sleep from his eyes, kneel to the ground, and pluck dead leaves strangling smaller living ones. (What that larger portion of his mind failed to realize was that the small corner of his mind took this kneeling as an opportunity to whisper, “Thank You for beauty. And the sky. And the strawberries and even my wife,” in some private impulse he could neither fully register nor understand.)

Harris stood and continued on his way, tending the fields by hand as his father and his grandfather before him had done, stubbornly ignoring machinery’s promise of larger profit and more leisurely lifestyle. Harris believed that an intimate relationship with his plants–their bugs, their roots, their leaves and, of course, their fruit–would produce optimal produce (a play on words he found hilarious and infinitely repeatable at parties). Harris was one of the last of his kind, but he didn’t care. Harris loved fruit. Harris loved hoping that he would provide someone with a memorable fruit experience. Harris loved his work, even though–nearing sixty and the end of his farming days–he had not, to that point, provided any pivotal fruit experience to any of his customers to his knowledge.

Perhaps in reward for his personal dedication–or maybe just the coincidence of a perfect plant pressed more firmly into the ground by a knee and then provided with light from under a patch of ground recently cleared of dead leaves, or perhaps even because of the angle and duration of a faultless sunbeam caressing the ground (delivered by a benevolent sun justly impressed with itself)–the fledgling blossom of what would become history’s (and, though to no human’s knowledge, even prehistory’s and posthistory’s) greatest strawberry budded in the soil of Harris’ fields.

By the nature of strawberry plants, it was over a month before the blossom transformed into that perfect berry. Grown to the size of a small child’s fist and sporting a red the likes of which had not been glimpsed since the morning of the sunrise Harris had barely noticed, every molecule of flesh brimming with a sun-warmed sweetness, the strawberry sat in the field. Even its seeds, a sharp, light green, seemed to recognize the greatness of the berry upon which they grew and were set aquiver with excited anticipation at the thought of the flavorful joy of which they would some day be a part.

This portion of the field, with its dappled green and red popping merrily out from the brown soil, was dedicated to customer-picking. Four-fifths of Harris’ lands were for commercial production and sale; had the strawberry grown there, it would have been packaged (and subsequently bruised beyond hope of edibility outside the sugary pulp of strawberry shortcake, Christmas fruitcake, or even a fruit smoothie blend). But the strawberry had grown instead where it would be hand-chosen and savored by someone lucky enough to spy it.

The day this strawberry was picked, only four people were in the field. Nicholas Harris was there, of course, personally overseeing the small group of customers. Harris walked through the strawberries, plucking only one or two for taste and enjoyment. Harris might have picked the strawberry; he might have put it to his lips and tasted it. A small corner of his mind (the same corner that registered “beautiful”) would have registered “delectable,” but the larger portion of his mind would immediately have distracted him with the recollection of having left an unpaid bill on the breakfast table. But Harris did not pick it. He instead watched his customers wandering the field.

The second and third people out that day were a young mother and her teetering toddler (whose wobbling attempts at walking had already squashed several strawberry plants). The young mother made efforts to attract her son’s attention to the strawberries–she would pick one and put it to his lips and when he would not eat, would eat it herself or drop it into her basket. Her face remained unchanged regardless of the berry’s taste.

Her attention to the visual details–the blue overalls her son wore and her own white sundress with strawberry patterns zigzagging across it–and the pocket–sized digital camera hanging constantly at her wrist made Harris think she was trying too hard. She was in search of a perfect Kodak moment. She was manufacturing memories the way machines manufactured rocking chairs–rocking chairs that, if handmade, would squeak, but would also hold memories in their very grain.

The mother made embarrassed excuses as her toddler wandered inattentively away from her–over to the single stray dandelion in the field, to a mud puddle, to play with his bellybutton. She made a stage whisper, just loud enough to be overheard and yet not loud enough (so she thought) to sound as if she wanted it to be overheard. “On any other day, I can’t get you to keep anything out of your mouth.” She laughed nervously and looked around until her eyes met with Harris’. She shrugged helplessly. Her fingers brushed over the perfect strawberry, but she rested her hand on the ground, raised herself up and chased after her son instead.

The fourth in the field was by profession a wine maker. A tall, if not portly, man, he owned acres upon acres of prize-winning grape vines; the mantles above his fireplaces–each of his four villas had at least two–glittered more than the golden gowns of the women who came to his high-brow parties. He was looking to expand his holdings and his specialties–strawberry wine might offer a counterbalance to the off-months of grape wines.

His name was Christopher Master, and Master was scouting for a strawberry producer to buy out. He wanted a small field to start–just small enough that if the production of strawberry wine was unprofitable his losses would be minimal. Harris’ fields were just the size for him, and he wandered the field in an organized way, testing the berries’ flavors from one patch of ground to the next.

Had Master found that strawberry and tasted it–but only just a nibble before he tossed it back to the earth (an expert wine taster, he naturally knew to take the smallest amounts for full appreciation)–he would have recognized its genius and hurried to snatch up the land. He would have strong-armed Harris into accepting an unfairly low price, leaving him to struggle alongside his wife to survive off their meager savings.

But the strawberry went almost entirely unnoticed by the businessman. He did, of course, note its size and extraordinary color, but then began gazing at that patch of soil’s particularly earthy brown. He was further distracted by a seed stuck between his molars. His tongue was tired from trying to pick it out, his feet hurt from walking in business shoes through a working-boot sort of field, his hands hurt from non-office work. He had tasted nothing spectacularly earth-shattering up to this part of the field (despite what Harris would have claimed), and Master began to wonder about other land–perhaps the monastery’s land that neighbored some of his own might produce an equal if not greater (not to mention easier) profit for his winery.

The toddler broke from his mother’s grasp and she sat, exasperated, back into the dirt, mussing her crisp white dress. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and squinted unappreciatively at the hot sun. Harris smiled, remembering how hard it had been when he was a child spending time in the fields with his father. He walked over to the young mother and spoke about the weather. Master, not entirely himself from the heat, took an uncharacteristic interest in everyday small talk, sat in the dirt next to the mother and started chatting with them.

The toddler wandered in their vicinity, finally unhampered by his mother’s attentions. He taste-tested whatever fell under his eye–a clot of dirt, a leaf, an unfortunate worm. The progression of textures made the child cringe, and he prattled on to himself about one thing or another, saying nothing in particular in his own pre-acquisition language.

Finally the child squatted, twisting on his heels to face the row of plants nearest him, and examined a leafy tuft. Thick, clumsy fingers tumbled over one berry after another and finally laid hold of that perfect strawberry. He grasped and took delight in the simple pleasure of severing the stem from the plant. He examined the strawberry for a moment–the red fascinated him. Sweet scent wafted from the berry and he breathed it in, giggling over his little treasure. He dangled it before him, an edible ruby hanging from an emerald-encrusted chain. His face, which had become grubby in the few minutes away from his mother, scrunched in examination of the fruit for one moment more. Then he plunged the thing into his mouth, as toddlers are apt to do.

Flavor burst onto his tongue, down his cheeks and his front, stuck to his hands, stained at his overalls. The flesh was soft and warm, as enjoyable in texture as in flavor. The toddler mashed at the berry with his little white teeth, experiencing an earthly version of heaven with every inch of his pink little tongue. He licked his lips, smiled, took another bite.

To the toddler, the few minutes it took to consume the berry felt like an eternity. He sat in the dirt–blissful–making pleasant noises to express his joy. The strawberry’s stem lay in his hand and he examined it, appreciating its sacrifice in his own way.

The child was quiet, but smiling, when his mother lifted him away and took him home that day. His look of satisfaction so surprised her that she forgot to snap any pictures. She buried her face in his warm stomach and blew a raspberry, giggling with her delighted toddler.

Master laughed when he saw the little boy’s expression, perplexed at what he thought was a very grown-up look of happiness on so small a face. That evening, unable to concentrate on words when the memory of the child’s face smiled up at him, he squirreled real estate paperwork into a drawer and took his cockapoo on a walk instead. He met a young lady watering her rose bushes, fell in love with her laughter and married her a year later after he had fallen in love with her mind (and her insistence on doing the right thing–including funding charities with his excessive wealth) as well.

The toddler grew up into a young man who had every opportunity his mother could offer. He could have become a doctor or a lawyer; any prestigious profession opened itself up to him. He had an unfailing love of beauty which even he could not explain, however, and he instead became a poor but happy photographer.

After a long career of capturing some of earth’s most natural beauty to share with those not lucky enough to see it firsthand, the young man wrote an autobiography. On its cover he placed simply the photograph of a strawberry. This he could not have explained any more than he could his love of beauty, but he knew it was somehow fitting. The book sold only a few copies and officially cost more to print than it made. (One of the copies that was sold inspired a young man to photograph his war-torn motherland, and those photographs inspired enough financial support–much of it from a once-bitter wine maker–to save thousands of lives.)

Harris died thirty years after prehistory’s, history’s, and posthistory’s greatest strawberry grew in his fields. He died with his hand in his wife’s, thinking that he had never done anything truly monumental–even in a monumental-fruit sort of way–with his life, but he didn’t really mind. He figured he had had a pretty good run of it anyway.