Pillars of Thorns

It was the year the blackberries took over Seattle. They grew from every patch of dirt, crawling over everything, halving the population in a matter of months through mass exodus. From her faraway apartment in North Carolina, smothered in neglected laundry and art supplies, Lisa obsessed, watching the heads of scientists and religious leaders and military spokesmen as they went on talking and the vines of the blackberries went on growing.

It had been a month since her mother’s funeral when Lisa’s father asked her to meet him for a drink. She wasn’t working anyway. She bled vacation time drinking, watching television and reading art magazines. She wasn’t returning any of the worried phone calls from her friends, she wasn’t painting, therapeutic creativity her shrink called it, she wasn’t going to her. She pulled up her résumé and added Advent Advertising: Graphic Designer. 6 years to the previous employment portion. She printed a dozen copies but didn’t even staple them. She didn’t want to interrupt her self-destruction by meeting her father for drinks but went anyway because she could use some company that wouldn’t try to cheer her up.

“Dad,” Lisa said sliding into the seat across from her father. It was two thirty in the afternoon, so the bar was almost empty. He’d grabbed a booth near the window and even though there was a thin white curtain pulled over the glass, the sun filtering in was still nearly blinding.

The bartender made his way to their table and read them the specials that they ignored in favor of a Macallan and water for him, a Sapphire and tonic for her. Lisa squeezed the lime into the liquid and stirred it around with her little straw. Dad was still wearing his wedding ring. She watched the light reflect off of the yellow gold and for a moment it seemed like the brightest light in the bar, but it was just a reflection, the ring the symbol of an expired contract.

“Lisa,” he said to her after a while, and then he picked up his untouched drink. He held it in his hand like he was going to make a toast, but set it back down. “I’m moving to Seattle.”

Every memory Lisa had was wrapped in Greensboro, North Carolina, playing in the streets around the neighborhood, walks at Lake Daniel Park, University at NC State where her little brother still went to school, her job. She grew up in the house on Carpenter Ct. To lose that would be to lose everything she was. “I’ll go with you.”

“I was hoping you would.”

They drank in silence. After a few minutes the bartender made his way back to the table. He reached for Lisa’s glass of lingering ice cubes. “Another?” She nodded. “Anything for you, sir?” he said to her dad, but the glass was only half empty.

After a while, Lisa killed the silence.“The blackberries?”

The National Guard had been sent in and the news had been escalating. The blackberries were the darlings of the media terror spotlight: botanical hydras—if one severed a thorny limb, two grew in its place.

“I could use a change of pace,” he said.

He sold the house, she quit her job. They put an ad in the paper, listing an estate sale, and people came with cash in hand to load furniture into the back of their pickup trucks. “Did anyone die on that chair?” a curious child, about twelve, asked as his mother dug through her purse for the asking price and Lisa shook her head no with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” his mother said, quickly extending her hand with the bundle of cash.

Nobody asked if her mother had died on the bed, but she had; she had gotten up in the middle of the night, gone to the restroom; when she came back she told her husband that he was taking over her side of the bed. In the morning she was dead. Lisa’s father had told her the story that morning. It was the only time outside of a funeral home she had seen her father cry. Then he’d gone to the bathroom, cleaned himself up and they’d finished with preparations. Some people offered their condolences, but it was hard to accept a stranger’s sympathy when they haggled over the price of a mahogany coffee table.

Lisa only saw her brother for a few hours; he didn’t make it down until after the estate sale ended. They sat on the ledge of a bay window, picked at the mostly eaten pizza and drank beer.

“How are you holding up?” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder.

“I don’t know,” Lisa said.

“You don’t have to go,” he said, and Lisa thought that he sounded sad for her, sincere. How close had they ever been? She wondered if this was a moment they would always look back on.

“Stay here? No, I want to go.” Lisa said. She swept her arm across the emptiness of the room. In the pittance of light, the dust motes swirling in the air intensified the emptiness. “I wonder if the blackberry bushes have killed, if that’s why dad wants to go.”

“Jesus Christ,” her brother said and got up. He walked a tight circle around the room.

She had forgotten that he was only twenty one. Despite his size, despite how he towered over her with elements of that same quiet presence their father possessed, he was still so young, still seven years younger. She felt guilty about letting her sorrow fall onto him. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

He put his arms around her and they cried together because that was what they knew they were supposed to do.

The new house in Federal Way, Washington had been built in 1958. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a massive garage. It cost almost half of what their two bedroom in North Carolina had. The owner of the house seethed as he signed the papers, taking deep breaths as he put ink to sheet. “Two years ago,” Lisa overheard him say to his realtor as they left the office, “I was offered five times that much. What the hell am I going to do now?”

They furnished the house in Ikea, driving out to South Renton a week before the store was to close. The farther north they drove, the more the blackberries were taking over, snaking across roads and overwhelming the shrubbery and the forests that crept alongside I-5.

Lisa couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real conversation with her father. When she had come home on weekends, before—before everything, she spent her time with her mother. Dad was always in the garage, tinkering, or he would be in his study, finishing up some work. He’d been an accountant with Grant Thornton, but retired when her mother died. At the funeral, Lisa held his hand, but they didn’t speak. When he told her about her mother’s last night, it was from nowhere, followed by nothing else. Maybe this was her chance to talk.

“Do you miss Mom?”

He seemed taken off guard by the question. He took his eyes off the road to look at her, they sparkled with moisture. He looked forward again. “Yes,” he said, “very much.”

“Me too.” Lisa said and felt a fool.

When they arrived at the Ikea, there was a huge banner across the front that read: TOM ROBBINS WAS RIGHT GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE. A picture of a blackberry vine thrusting through the concrete of a sidewalk was vividly rendered in the background. The Ikea building was the only one occupied, the other businesses already gone. The empty buildings like ghosts waiting on a dying friend.

While outside the trees and the berries flourished, the warehouse was skeletal. Like a halfway deconstructed zeppelin, girders stretched from one side of the building to the other, crisscrossing and meeting with support beams. Duct stood starkly against the empty roof and beneath it all was leftover shelving, almost equally barren; their choices were made by scarcity.

“Moving in?” the store manager asked as he rang them up. He told them how his employees had either quit for what little work there was left, or had fled the area entirely, moving out to Walla Walla, Washington; Portland, Oregon or Vineland, California where there were still evergreens and rhododendrons and morel mushrooms without the impossible blackberry bushes. “Welcome,” he said in conclusion with a sad smile. He finished their order and handed them their receipt on top of a paperback book with a pack of cigarettes and a woodpecker on its cover. He smiled a wan smile at their confusion and wished them luck.

Lisa dreamt of being smothered in her sleep, of waking to a sea of green spikes before she perished. She didn’t share her dreams with her father, though; they didn’t speak much, and she wasn’t going start with examining her nihilistic subconscious with him as their only dialog.

Weeks were spent in relative tranquility. Her father touched up the house, spending days in the garage, sanding and routing and drilling. Lisa read art magazines and sketched. Sometimes her father came out and pulled at the blackberry bushes, sorting through the bramble, gathering up vines and twisting them together, banding them with garbage ties until he cleared out a small patch of the yard.

Lisa’s father bought an F-350 from a dealership owned by a man who’d refused to evacuate for St. Helens in the eighties. If a volcano couldn’t move him, he’d be damned if some shrubs did. Lisa and her father sometimes spent their days driving around downtown Seattle to have a look. They passed National Guard units, armed with flamethrowers and leather gloves and shears, driving Bobcats and backhoes, trying to take the blackberries head on.

“Idiots,” Lisa said every time they drove past the cordoned areas. New plants were already growing where vines had been ripped out but the roots remained or from the smoldering ashes where a flamethrower’s chemical fire had burned.

“They’ll be gone soon enough,” her father said, and by May he was mostly right. Congress grew tired of the money spent and began withdrawing the Guard slowly, avoiding the attention of an abrupt exit. The fire and the shears and the machinery had done nothing, had possibly spurred growth, and the cost was too much.

By the time Lisa and her dad reached the center of the city, they were driving on a green road of blackberry vines that twined tightly together, carpeting everything. Creepers climbed through open windows into apartment buildings and scaled the Space Needle. Eco King Kong. Lisa began to wonder if it had been a good idea to follow her father out West. At first she enjoyed the trips to Seattle. They made her feel empty.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“Oh,” he said, “just getting ideas.”

The nut jobs proclaimed the blackberry bushes as justice imposed upon the world. It was punishment for using pesticides, for genetically modifying tomatoes and using hormones on cows. It was because of global warming, because of the exponential increase in greenhouse gasses. It was because people ate meat and wore fur. It was because of the lumber industry. It was because people were sinful: were gay, had premarital sex, didn’t pray enough. It was the beginning of the Earth’s salvation.

Lisa’s brother flew in after his junior year finals that May. She and her father again drove up the I-5 to pick him up, the farther north they drove, the more the blackberries choked out everything. There was a red house off of the highway, barely visible. It was covered so thickly it looked like the blackberry bushes were bleeding bits of house.

The airport was a battlefield where the National Guard still had a highly visible presence. Planes flew low over the tops of trees while soldiers pushed and cut and fought the blackberries. The bushes mounted on the edges of the tarmac and waited. When Lisa welcomed her brother with a hug, he wondered aloud if he hadn’t been dropped off in the Balkans by mistake.

They grilled on the back patio and enjoyed the evening air, Mount Rainier majestic in the background. The food was good and the view was wonderful.

“I have an idea. Work.” Lisa’s father told them after dinner. “I’ll need both of you.”

“Jesus dad, I just got back from school.” her brother said.

“I’m going to need both of you.” Her brother and her dad locked eyes, but her brother didn’t say anything.

He laid it out simply: The mutated blackberry bushes grew in vines rather than bush clumps. They could gather up the vines and weave them together, binding them with copper bands or anything strong enough to hold the mass of growth.

“You’re kidding,” Lisa’s brother said.

Lisa looked at the vines he had gathered up already. There was a clear yard, even if the grass was dead from months of light deprivation. It occurred to her that they should have been doing something a long time before then.

“We start tomorrow,” he said, standing. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder before he left. “It’s good to have you home. Get some sleep.”

Lisa suggested hot chocolate and was surprised her brother accepted. He told her about his junior year of college, about criminology classes, which really meant chemistry and psychology and sociology. He told her about the parties he went to and the girls he met. Lisa listened inattentively, thinking instead about the blackberries.

He grabbed her attention with a grave look. “I ran into Mary Hollins,” he said. “At a bar with some buddies. She asked how you were. You should call her.”

Lisa was caught off guard by the thought of her childhood friend, but it seemed more like the memories of past life regression. “I don’t know,” she said, “I’m waiting for something.”


“Something.” Lisa said.

As she lay in her bed, Lisa pulled up the images of her life before, when she had a mother and hope: friends and drinks and work. Even though she was awake, she dreamed that those memories were drowning in blackberry vines.

They went to work. Lisa helped with the thorny vines at first, but she didn’t last long. She had no aptitude for the separating and twisting and bracing of the blackberries. Her father and her brother seemed born to it though and the yard was soon transformed. Lisa took artistic control, noting where the bushes were rooted and sketching ideas—soon they had two massive arches on each side of their house, reaching from the front yard to the back and touching the edges of the roof. They strung blackberry vine cables, connecting the arches, and let down thin braids of vine streamers down the sides. They wrapped their work in blue and red string and banded it with aluminum strips. They arranged the masses of blackberries in the yard into hedges and formed geometrically shaped bushes from stray brambles.

The house converted, they tinkered with ideas and relaxed. Lisa envisioned the blackberries in massive towers with cascading tresses of thorny vines. She drew arches with gradually flaring green bases. She imagined the blackberries as vipers that her father and brother had wrangled into submission and drew upon lingering images from classical mythology. She drew a massive avatar with defined muscles clutching at blackberry vines, dominant. Above her sketches she wrote: Heracles Botanical Design.

They used their house and yard as a portfolio and pitched their company to city officials. “Welcome to our home,” Lisa said when the city planners arrived in their faded suits. “This project took us about a week.” They showed photographs from before and answered questions of logistics, structures and contracts. They were hired on the spot. They went out for Thai food to celebrate, their mouths a joyous burning, and began work the next day.

They worked well as a trio, Lisa scouting the layout of the streets and the bushes and drawing up a plan of action. She had a knack for sorting through the ruins of a yard and giving it a future. Her brother and her father exceled in putting plan to action. Lisa stopped dreaming of being smothered by vines, but what filled the void she couldn’t say.

After the long days of work, tired and sweaty and covered in scratches from the thorns, they came home and relaxed. On sunny days, they grilled. Lisa watched her brother and father throw a baseball back and forth in wordless motion. The sound of the birds and of the baseball in the soft pocket of leather surrounded her.

What did they think about? Did they need to think about the monotonous motion of throwing? Did throwing and catching require thought or was it instinct? Did they wonder what their life would be if they had stayed back east? Did they think about the blackberry bushes that could be cajoled, but not killed, or the life they had made out west? Did they still mourn in those moments their loss of mother and wife? Or did they think only of the sound a glove makes when they reached their hands into the pocket, the tips of their fingers gripping the stitches and the backs of them softly rubbing against the smooth, oily inside of the glove?

Lisa asked her brother one day what he thought about when he was throwing the ball back and forth.

“I don’t know,” he said, putting down his glove and picking up a glass of water that Lisa had poured for herself. “It’s nice.”

“But what do you think about?”


“Nothing?” Even when she wasn’t thinking of anything, Lisa found that she was still rushing about mentally, worrying about something, planning for something, wondering about something.

“I just throw the ball and don’t think of anything. I guess it’s like Zen, or whatever.”

“Do you even know what ‘Zen, or whatever,’ is?” Lisa asked in exasperation.

“It’s like throwing a baseball around for an hour.”

By early August, King 5 news had taken notice of the work being done in Federal way. They came out to talk to the family. Within a week a slew of cut-rate businesses had sprung up, underbidding for inferior work and convincing the city council their money would be wiser spent on cheaper work. The competitors lacked understanding and artistry, but, the mayor explained, almost sounding apologetic, it was local government, after all.

“I worked so hard,” her father said, after the city had pulled the contract with a gaggle of lawyers and some slippery manipulations of loopholes. “Now I have nothing. Now I have nothing again.”

Lisa didn’t have the words and looked to her brother for support, but he had stormed out of the room. Her mother would have been good at this, she could have pointed out to the family how much good that they’d done, but she was gone, and so the loss of their business felt like death. Another. She put her hand on her father’s and they sat there together in silence.

Lisa dreamt that night that she was fighting the blackberries in hand to hand combat, winning easily. Then, behind her, her house blew up. The explosion was purple and gold, the flames the shapes of wolves.

The next day the phone rang early. A homeowner in Bellevue wanted to hire them. She was a widow from an old-money family and wanted the craftsmanship she had seen on the news. Lisa named an overlarge number, purely out of spite for their recent loss, and the woman accepted. Stunned, Lisa passed the news to her father, who was in his garage, sitting at an empty workbench. The phone rang again, this time a young couple holding out in Kirkland. Again, from Mercer Island. Again, from Sammamish.

The shift to private contracts, to artistry and perfection of craft rather than speed of completion, changed things. Lisa’s father insisted on taking as much work on as possible. “You never know how long it will last. Not with this. Not with anything.” She knew he was right somehow and that he was wrong. She couldn’t thread the ideas, however, she couldn’t place their roots. What is the difference between making use of a thing and milking it dry?

They started work early, before their employers would be up to interfere, arriving at the houses as day broke, wringing what they could of the summer, working until dusk began to settle. Then they drove home in silence, exhausted.

They worked Saturdays. Her brother took a leave of absence from school. They worked through August and September. Sundays were spent in a daze, sleeping until two in the afternoon and going to bed again at nine. They worked almost exclusively along the Puget Sound, rescuing mansions from obscurity, sprucing up the architecture with green. Lisa stopped reading books on a lawn chair in the back yard; her brother and her father stopped throwing the baseball back and forth. They hired extra hands to help disentangle the bramble so that they could thread it more quickly into increasingly complex patterns.

They spun such finery from the brutal vines that a homeowner once joked that soon the rich would begin foolishly importing the blackberries to New England. Under a cloud of despair their work made the leaps and bounds from fine craft to pure art. Lisa hoped that the coming winter would kill the blackberries, that they would dry up and shrivel and their leaves would turn yellow like normal blackberries. She knew better.

Time dissolved like sugar in coffee, disintegrated and disappeared into the opacity of history. Lisa thought about quitting and moving back to North Carolina, but it was only a sad fantasy. Her work was in Seattle, her new life. What was left in Greensboro she wouldn’t recognize.

Even with January snow, the blackberries didn’t stop growing. They grew as fast as grief, the vines glistened and reflected the light of the sun, but the beauty was lost on Lisa. She felt like she was rusting when she stood outside in her jumpsuit, trying to hold a pencil through her mittens to sketch designs. One of the workers almost fell off the roof securing an arch to the corner of a house in Medina. Her father caught a cold that spiraled into pneumonia.

“I like being a foreman,” he said when she tried to make him take time out to rest. “We move the earth, reshape it. I’m not going to sit in bed just because of a cold. Without this, we have nothing.” Even though his nose was running and his eyes were underscored by dark bags and his voice was hoarse, she nodded her head and smiled. Much later, she would wish that she had said they had each other, but it hadn’t occurred to her.

A few days later he collapsed.

Lisa and Ben rode with their father to the hospital and sat by his bed. “Don’t go,” Lisa said. “Don’t die. I don’t want to be your artist, I want to be your daughter. I want to talk about mom with you. I want to talk about you.” They watched the slow traffic of IV medication that did no good. They held his hands until they grew cold.

They had run the routine before: arrangements were made. Time moved still forward. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Lisa told her brother when the last of the mourners had left.

“I think it would be best if I went back to school,” he said.

“What the Hell happened?” Lisa said.

They sold the company. They sold the house for seven times what their father had paid for it. When her brother went back to North Carolina for spring semester, Lisa drove to Eureka, California, to find something, she said; she didn’t know what. “I’ll exclaim if I do.” On her way to the airport she noticed that Federal way was worse for the wear from sloppy work and entropy. Vines once bound tight strayed away, polluting the landscape with their tendrils. As she looked at the sprawl of the old work undone and the wild explosion of new growth, she wondered how long it had been going on right where they lived. She took a taxi to the airport and looked out of the window for the red house along the side of the freeway but there was nothing to see but green.

A month passed in California. The news was how the blackberries were spreading across the country. She tried to call her brother, but he was busy with school, trying to move on with life.

Lisa paced around her apartment until she gave up and finally called Mary Hollins. The friendship that had mattered so much to her in her youth had become a memory best remembered through photograph. The conversation was short and sterile. There was only the exchange of information, the promise to keep in touch, the click of the call ending.

Lisa turned on the television and flipped the channels absently. She thought of a bar but the imposed camaraderie of people gathered for alcohol turned her off. A public access show was running a static camera from the space needle, its lens already mostly covered in growth. Lisa settled on the couch, watching the thin grey slice of Pacific Northwest cloud cover on the screen between the twists of thorns, waiting to see if a final tendril would cut off that last vestige of light or if the sky would remain, dark and cloudy, but there.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked