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Sue Carpenter

© 2000

Badger Sister

The summer before I turned thirteen, my sister and I picked raspberries for six hot, sweaty, miserable weeks. We were shook out of bed each morning at four-thirty, stung by bees, stabbed by thorns, harassed by other raspberry pickers, covered with dirt and raspberry slime by lunchtime, and paid very little. The raspberry fields were alternately mud slop or whirling dustbowls, sticky hot or shiver cold, and an hour-long ride away from the city in the back of a bucking truck. Worst of all, I was humiliated and angry to be saddled every day with an irritating younger sister who refused to accept her place. Mom signed us up for the job because we needed the money for school clothes, and I think she was tired of our bickering. Bloody torture couldn’t have made me admit it then, but my younger sister Bonnie earned my grudging admiration that summer.

The first day before being barbecued by the sun, Bonnie and I were bounced around in the back of the rusty truck with the rest of the pickers, five boys and three girls between the ages of eleven and thirteen. Tired, but unable to sleep in the gyrating truck bed, we eyed the others furtively. One good-looking boy with wavy black hair stared openly at each of the five girls. He quickly passed over my sister and I, his bold blue eyes finally settling on the chest of a tall blonde girl. The other boys followed his example. I decided not to give him the time of day.

We named the five pre-pubescent boys the “rat boys.” They spent much of their time planning to catch any girl unaware. When we were bent over in the hot sun, an arm reaching into thorns to grab a ripe berry, several boys would attack. They would sprint between the raspberry rows, and smash a handful of squished dark red berries into the startled victim’s hair. The second assailant would attempt a run-by bra snapping, aiming for the back closure. Sometimes they missed and forcefully knocked the poor girl into the raspberry bushes where sharp thorns impaled her skin. Until that summer, I had no idea boys had such an obsession with bras. Danny, the handsome well built boy with the black hair, would leer at us while we rode on the truck each morning, and he would often sing a tune that began, “Over the shoulder boulder holders.” Since my twelve-year old chest resembled two raspberries on two very small pancakes, I wore what was called a training bra. That in itself was humiliating enough. The boys were disgusting, our fingers were stained purple for six weeks, my small blonde sister bugged the hell out of me, and on top of that, one of the girls was a big stupid bully.

She towered over us. I was the tallest girl in my seventh grade class, and Glenda was at least four inches taller. The first morning she sat down on the dirty floor of the truck bed, stretching out long golden legs, her back to the cab. The dawn sun glittered in her long blonde hair as it whispered about her shoulders. She made eye contact with Danny. Smiling invitingly, she heaved her breasts just enough to snare all five pairs of male eyes. Glenda reached a golden hand to casually check the top button of her pink blouse. She twisted the button while the boys held their breath. I think that was when I began to hate her more than my sister.

I’d like to say my sister and I bonded that summer, but that would be a lie. Instead, because of Glenda’s desire to impress Danny while she picked on someone smaller than herself, I developed a grudging respect for Bonnie.

Glenda liked to step on the girl’s lunches that were piled under a huge tree until break-time. The act evidently made her feel powerful, and she made sure the boys were watching, especially Danny. She squished mine a few times until I wised up and hid it every day. My sister Bonnie refused to hide her lunch. The three other girls either hid their lunch or put up with the abuse. At first I enjoyed my sister’s misfortune, but then I felt guilty because I didn’t stick up for my little sister. The threat of defeat or pain always turned me into a chicken. I hated my weakness, but Glenda was just too big to mess with. Besides, she had five boys lusting after her.

On a very hot and muggy Wednesday, the third week at the raspberry farm, the girls sat down under the shady tree for our lunch break. The boys sat in the sun about twenty feet away, either hungrily watching Glenda or hurling lewd bra comments at us, food occasionally squirting from their open mouths. Bonnie sat next to a mousy girl named Verna, pointedly ignoring me. She reached for her dirty lunchbag, the only squashed lunchbag that day, which perfectly framed Glenda’s footprint. Since my sister was the smallest raspberry picker, Glenda took great pleasure in tormenting her.

I saw it coming. A violent thunderstorm with frequent lightning strikes erupted on Bonnie’s face, and she jumped up ready to fight.
“You bitch! I’m sick of this.” All eyes were riveted on Bonnie. I had no idea my sister knew how to use the “b” word.
Glenda looked surprised for a moment, and then she rose from the dirt, confident of the outcome. The two of them stepped outside the shade of the tree, about five feet apart. The difference between my sister, and her tormentor reminded me of a badger and a gladiator.
They faced off in the midst of the raspberry field over a dumb lunchbag. Glenda, bereft of intuition, had no idea she was the one in trouble. Bonnie, a wiry four footer, stood fists and teeth clenched, while staring ferociously at Glenda, the raspberry-picking gladiator. I nervously eyed the two combatants, my peanut butter sandwich poised in front of my face, worried I might be forced to defend my sister. I didn’t like her anymore than Glenda did, but she was my flesh and blood. I could feel sweat running down my back as the sun beat hot and angry on the oddly mismatched pair.

Bonnie was born uppity. A year and a half younger than I, she was a small, but sleek badger who jumped at you and bit, her razor sharp teeth inflicting terrible pain. I remember a breezy summer morning sitting in the kitchen on one of those old metal potato chip canisters, rolling back and forth over the worn linoleum.
“I wanna’ sit, too,” whined Bonnie, giving me a fervent push. Feeling entitled and bigger, I smirked at her and shook my head no. Even if I had been tired of my revolving perch, I wasn’t about to give it to her. My first mistake was to refuse, the second was to turn my back on her.
Outraged, Bonnie hurled herself at my back, her jaws clamping into skin just above my rear end. I howled in pain. Reaching behind me, I yanked her hair and pounded her head with my four-year old might. She hung on, her tiny incisors tearing into my flesh.
Hearing my screams, Mom nearly tripped with a basket of laundry as she ran up the basement stairs. Bonnie was still attached to my back, her jaws, a steel trap.
“Bonnie, let go. NOW.” None of us dared ignore our mother when she commanded in that take-no-prisoners voice. The spot where I wore two perfect teeth marks for several years reminded me not to mess with Bonnie. She would never give in, and I detested her for that. As the older sister, I wallowed in a bitter stew because I couldn’t win.

“Gonna do something about it?” Glenda taunted Bonnie.
Bonnie stepped forward. I carefully positioned my sandwich on my lunchbag, still watching the two girls. My heart pounded so hard my ears hurt from the vibration.

“Come on, you little wimp. I’m gonna knock you on your butt. And I’m gonna’ step on your stupid lunch every day.” Glenda already sounded triumphant.
I’ll never know if Bonnie was waiting for me to help her out. I froze, fear and my own weakness paralyzing me.
Glenda opened her mouth to say something snide, but before the words could escape, Bonnie launched a ferocious attack. My little sister flew directly at Glenda, her arms and legs hacking air like helicopter blades. Taken off guard, the blows connected so violently that Glenda fell backward into the dirt. Bonnie jumped on top of her, pounding her tormentor with everything she had, arms, fists, legs, and kicking feet. For a few seconds the only sounds heard were my sister’s blows connecting with Glenda’s body. She was lucky Bonnie didn’t use her teeth, too.

After a few seconds, Glenda screamed as she protectively shielded her face.

“Call your sister off!”

“Call your sister off! Please,” she begged, her voice high pitched and hysterical.

I was too stunned to speak. Bonnie suddenly stopped, stood up, dusted herself off, and sat down under the tree to eat her squished lunch, a satisfied look on her face. The other raspberry pickers and I had jumped to our feet and our eyes collectively followed Bonnie. No one moved a muscle to help Glenda get up. She lay sobbing in the dirt, covering her face with her hands. I noticed a couple of the boys elbow each other, quickly glance at Bonnie, and whisper. Danny fixed his eyes on Glenda as if she had suddenly morphed into a buzzing fly creamed by a swatter.

For the remainder of the six weeks, I’m ashamed to admit I reaped the benefits. Bonnie and I picked raspberries in peace. Glenda steered clear of us. She stopped stepping on lunches. The boys spared us from any further squished raspberry or run-by bra attacks. Danny still sang his “boulder” song, but we knew it was strictly aimed at Glenda and the other girls. I even swaggered a bit around the other raspberry pickers, especially the boys, as if to say, “Yeah, she’s my sister. Ain’t she somethin’?” I found myself admiring Bonnie after that, yet secretly angry and embarrassed that I hadn’t been the one to put Glenda in her place. Inside, I felt like shit. I wanted whatever it was she had. Openly defiant of pecking order rules at home, and willing to take on anybody regardless of size, she resonated a fighting spirit that I coveted.

Though we’re adults now, we still rub each other the wrong way. She doesn’t bite or kick anymore, and I’m not such a chicken. Just when I think my childish jealousy and anger is buried, we argue on the phone about religion or mental illness or the latest herbal remedies. I stand at my kitchen counter clutching the phone while we circle each other, two sisters who love and admire each other, yet never reaching a place we can agree. I’m an adult kid sitting on a potato chip canister again, and I want to let her have a turn.

Waiting to Write

Will writing cause weight loss?

While wrestling with words
will fat melt away?

Does writing turn hair grey?

Will sitting at the computer
cause baldness?

Will it bring me strength
day after day
hour after hour
the words
don’t go my way?

When I’m asked, “What are you
trying to say?”

Will I know? Does my story
happen that day?

I want to know if you
can tell me

I’m waiting

Sue Carpenter was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teacher English and Humanities at Lakeville High School. She coaches girls' hockey and is especially proud of being instrumental in getting the sport accepted at Burnsville High School. She once had a commentary published in The Star-Tribune.