by H. Wagner
CHILD: Innocent and intelligent. Young. If you tell the audience the Brothers Grimm had written her, they shouldn’t be too surprised.
WOMAN: Believes she is innocent and intelligent. Older. Somewhere between a 1950s oven advertisement, your mother in law, and the Wicked Witch. Probably all three.
We shouldn’t be sure.
Note to PAs: I am very sorry.
Setting: Along the edges of the stage and in the audience are tangled blackberry brambles and gleaming berries, growing thicker until they become a wall in the back of the stage—simultaneously seductive and threatening.
At Rise: CHILD enters the stage in a plain, white dress. She gazes at the berries and touches her stomach. To the actor playing CHILD: try not to make this too, “hey, audience, I’m hungry and that’s important to the plot.” I mean, it is, but they don’t have to know that. CHILD thinks about taking a berry but decides against it. She changes her mind, and changes her mind again.
CHILD (she does not sound like a child)
I wouldn’t be afraid of the berries if it weren’t for the thorns. You see them, don’t you? It seems they shine red already. And you never know which ones will hurt you—the green ones might bend, but somewhere along the way they harden, scraping at you no matter how hungry you are.
But I suppose if there were no thorns, the vultures would have plucked the stems clean as bone by now.
(CHILD hesitates, then she plucks a berry from a low-hanging branch. She eats, then she goes to eat more.)
It seems my stomach screams louder the more I eat. Do you ever feel that way?
(CHILD pricks her finger. She looks at the blood.)
I’ve pricked myself.
(She picks another berry but holds it too tightly, and it gets on her dress.)
My dress! If only something kinder grew here.
(A WOMAN enters with a folding table and a tablecloth. She sets up the table with the cloth but does not see CHILD. CHILD picks another handful of berries and folds up the hem of her dress to make a pocket for them. WOMAN leaves and swiftly returns with a plate full of pie. She sees CHILD.)
WHAT do you think you’re doing, young lady?!
And WHAT are you eating?
I think you mean MY berries! Did you not see the fence?
The one right…
(She gestures behind her only to realize that the fence has disappeared behind the bushes—if there ever was one to begin with.)
Well, there was a fence. But you must have seen the sign!
(She looks around. She hurries offstage and returns with a sign that she sticks in a bush. It reads: “Do Not Pick Berries.”)
But that wasn’t—
See? The berries don’t belong to you. What’s that you have in your dress?
(CHILD hesitates before revealing the berries.)
You can have them back, but I pricked my finger on the thorns—
Give them here.
(She does. WOMAN puts them in a basket.)
I’m sorry—I’ve been searching for food. I didn’t know it belonged to anyone.
(WOMAN walks to the table.)
I understand, it’s just that every lost berry keeps us further from our customers.
(She flips over a sign on the table: “Pies For Sale.”)
Maybe this setback can work out for both of us. You said you were hungry?
Even after eating.
I only had / a few.
You can work off your debt. And if you work well, you may get a pie yourself.
Is that a deal?
CHILD (half to herself)
My stomach is louder than reason, so yes.
Would your reason say otherwise?
Good. Why don’t you start by straightening the tablecloth?
(CHILD does so but stains it with blackberry juice—or something of that color.)
Now you’ve stained it. Child, I would caution against any more mistakes.
I didn’t mean—
Perhaps another task would suit you better. Take this.
(She hands her a basket from under the table.)
You can pick. Again.
(CHILD watches as WOMAN puts on some gloves and puts the berries in a bowl on the table.)
Do I get gloves?
They wouldn’t fit you.
But the thorns—
(CHILD begins to do so, picking the lower berries cautiously. WOMAN watches her for a moment then turns to the audience. She picks up a berry and looks at it. She might squeeze it.)
Notice how the higher berries shine darker? Pick those.
(CHILD looks up at the wall of berries. She reaches for one.)
(CHILD does so.)
(CHILD struggles to get higher, and her dress gets caught. WOMAN eats the berry and pulls out a sack of sugar.)
(WOMAN adds sugar to the berries.)
Did you hear me?
What was that?
(CHILD slips to the ground, her dress ripping. WOMAN turns back to her.)
Well, what are you doing on the ground?
(CHILD cringes. She looks at her leg—a cut runs down the side of it.)
Have you cut yourself already, child?
I’m not big enough to reach the high ones.
Sure you are.
If you picked the higher ones, it would go twice as fast.
Me? Picking berries?
No. I make the pies. I don’t deal with the thorns.
May I take a break? I’m not feeling well.
Well, how much have you picked?
(She looks in the basket. She tsks.)
That’s hardly enough for a pie, dear. If you can’t pick the better berries, I cannot force you. But it will take longer to repay me.
I understand, it’s just—if I could just eat something, I would be much more efficient.
I think you’re forgetting what got you into this mess in the first place. You will eat once you have earned it.
(CHILD begins to stand; it is an effort.)
I’m going to try to make something of what you have given me, but the basket should be full when I return. The customers are hungry.
(WOMAN exits. CHILD turns to the audience.)
I don’t think I like it here.
(She looks at the berries.)
How long does it take to starve? Maybe you’ve never wondered that. I never thought I would. I didn’t mean to steal. I’ve been wandering for so long, I thought this was an oasis. But maybe working is the way to survive.
(CHILD picks up the basket and starts picking. A barely audible ticking sound begins offstage.)
It is hard for me to watch them—see?—dropping like little pebbles into the basket, to be baked with sugar, and given to the customers who have already eaten. I’ve never understood “dessert.” Eating after eating. Still, the customers must have done this, worked so they can stop thinking about how long it takes to starve and start thinking about what to eat after they have finished eating. Maybe I’ll get to do that, too.
(The OVEN dings offstage. CHILD appears panicked. She looks at the basket, which is nowhere near being full. She picks more berries as quickly as she can. She might try to shake the branches to pour them into her basket, but this probably doesn’t work. WOMAN enters with red-stained white gloves and gardening shears, cutting her way through the path.)
The pie is almost done.
We work quickly here. See this path? Even the bushes will be overgrown soon if I don’t manage them.
(WOMAN starts to peer in the basket.)
Is it difficult?
CHILD (subtly sarcastic)
Your job, I mean? Running everything, baking the pies…
I’m not the one who—well, yes. It is difficult.
Putting them in the oven, selling them to the customers…it might be harder than picking the berries!
WOMAN (catching on)
What are you—
Intellectually speaking, that is.
WOMAN (Sarcasm? What’s that?)
It does require strategy.
Your feet must be aching.
WOMAN (suddenly sore)
Why yes, they are!
Wouldn’t you like a break?
I could take over for you, just for today. And maybe then I would have earned a meal myself.
I see what you are doing.
(Beat. Is she catching on? WOMAN smiles.)
I sense ambition. So be it. When you are through, you’ll get your share.
(The oven dings.)
Why don’t you bring me that pie?
(CHILD goes to the kitchen and brings out a pie during the next line. WOMAN cuts the pie. CHILD lingers.)
(aside) Despite what you may think, I feel for the laborers. But incentive is what makes the business, isn’t it? And in any case, don’t we all have to work for dessert?
(to CHILD, who is watching her cut the pie)
Go on then. You’ll have to pick quickly to keep up.
They wouldn’t tell me how to make it so quickly. Isn’t there a trick?
It’s hard work—there’s no trick. You’ll make the next one, then you’ll see. And keep quiet, here come the customers.
(CHILD goes back to the bushes and picks. She is cut. She makes a sound but covers her mouth so she doesn’t alert WOMAN. As she picks, she disappears into the bushes. WOMAN finishes cutting the pie and puts slices on plates. Lights up on the audience.)
Who wants pie?!
(WOMAN should give pie to as many people in the audience as she can. She should encourage them to eat it until she succeeds with at least one person. Kindly, of course, like a Southern grandma on Thanksgiving. This can take as long as it needs to, probably longer. She can go backstage and get more pie, or go under the table and get more pie. Or the ushers can give people more pie. Vegan pie, maybe. Gluten-free pie, if you’d like. But people should be eating pie—the more the better. While we are eating…)
Good as always, I hope? You do keep coming back.
I know, the fence! It grows so quickly. I have to take the shears with me to keep from getting torn apart. But the business is growing almost as quickly as the bushes!
(The oven dings. A long pause, perhaps some noises of effort or whimpers from CHILD before she enters with the pie. She is covered in deep red cuts—it looks more like knife wounds than scratches from thorns. Some brambles are attached to her dress. “Wasn’t her dress white before?” we might wonder. She is completely covered in red now, both from blood and blackberry juice. She puts the pie, messy and deep red, on the table. WOMAN looks at her, reactionless. Maybe she’s just stunned?)
(aside)Keep eating. Go on.
What are you thinking? They won’t eat this.
Please, I can hardly stand. Can I have just one bite?
(WOMAN picks the brambles off of CHILD’s dress, like a mother might.)
I’m sorry you feel this way. I truly am.
(WOMAN takes a berry from the table and turns away from her. She picks at the thorn branch absentmindedly as she speaks. She peels a thorn from the stick and puts it in her hand with the berry.)
I can see you are weary, and I know that it is human to do things you wouldn’t otherwise in the name of survival. I will help you.
You asked me if there was a trick, why we can work so quickly and gain so many customers. And I said there was not. See this berry?
(She hands it to CHILD.)
It’s small and a little underripe. You can make pie with these, but it would be no different from pie elsewhere. But there—
(WOMAN gestures to the top of the bushes.)
That is where we produce the good berries, dark as wine. I could never reach them. But every good recipe, like every good business, needs a…secret ingredient. Do you understand?
(CHILD is staring at the berry. After a moment, she nods.)
(WOMAN turns away. CHILD considers the bushes behind her. WOMAN picks up the shears while CHILD looks between her and the berry. She is unsteady now, and blinks a little too hard. She starts to fall, catching herself on the thorns. She yelps.)
Hurry now. They’ll be hungry again soon enough.
(She can’t help herself now. Teary-eyed, she puts the berry in her mouth. She’s not stealing—she’s eating. She closes her eyes, enjoying it. But she’s guilty still and only hungrier now. She stumbles back to the thorns. But something is wrong. She puts a hand to her throat and looks up. She decides to climb. She devolves into a coughing fit, soft at first, but it only gets worse. WOMAN talks over it to the audience.)
Thank you all, again, for your patronage. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you all. I hope this child hasn’t spoiled your appetite. She hasn’t learned how things work here. I mean, look at her pie. I wouldn’t think of selling it to you, I can’t imagine anyone wanting it. But you can eat it if you’d like?
I don’t blame you.
(CHILD makes a sound as she tries to climb higher. WOMAN doesn’t look at her. CHILD falls into the bush. WOMAN straightens up.)
Sometimes I wonder if children read fairy tales anymore. There is always that bit at the end that summarizes everything, teaching them how to behave and how to earn what they want. If only they knew, the world might not be so cruel to them. You see, don’t you? What the moral of this story would be?
(CHILD stops coughing, her hand to her mouth, midway up the brambles. She is further than we thought she could go.)
(pointedly)You shall not take what is not yours.
(CHILD looks at her hand, which, along with her mouth, is covered in blood. She holds up a sticky thorn.)
Dessert is a privilege, not a right.
It should be earned, not taken.
If you work hard, you will get your share. If not…
(WOMAN cuts the pie. She straightens up again, speaking louder so that CHILD can hear.)
Last chance. Climb higher.
(CHILD tries, then stops moving.)
(CHILD stirs. She climbs higher than she has before. Amazingly, she makes it almost all the way to the top. She reaches for a berry.)
(CHILD is stuck. The basket tumbles to the ground, and she is now suspended in the bushes, arms splayed outwards. WOMAN sits down at the table and tucks a napkin in her top. She begins to eat as CHILD’s head drops. Behind her, in the shadows: bones.)