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The Picker

They started calling him the picker in his youth, much the way they called others whom they saw an artist or a social climber. Through repeated encounters with people who were convinced of his ability, and through giving in to his own natural tendency toward it, he actually came to be the picker, which he never referred to as an occupation when he talked about it with friends, but rather as a calling.

During the day he went about his business with an open wagon which he pulled behind him on a long pole, offering his goods for sale in villages and towns. He carried a basket on the days when he planned to go picking.

The picker could be recognized from a distance, since nobody was as tall as he, and nobody trudged as tenaciously over streets and fields as he, rolling a cumbersome wagon with wooden wheels from village to village, in most cases to return right before dusk and take lodging in a country inn, and nobody else laid as much importance on going to people and asking what they would like him to bring them the next time he came by.

Once everything was sold, he kept himself busy with the upkeep of his wagon, greasing the wheels and checking the shaft for breaks, while he planned his next expedition to a deep spot in the woods which was known to him alone.

He took a basket, which more closely resembled a bag, that he could close to hide the contents from curious eyes, and left the inn through the back door. It was so early in the morning that he knew most of the villagers were still asleep, and he took great pleasure in the quietness and the first rays of sunlight in the sky and the fresh dew, which moistened his shoes with every step. He took notice of the flowers and berries bordering the path as he strode deeper and deeper into the woods, enjoying the darkness where the tree-tops and trunks muted and filtered every particle of light. He swung his arms, breathed deeply, and uttered a little verse now and then as it suited him.

It was hours later when he reached his goal: a clearing around which tall trees towered full of ripened fruits. Small children hung on the branches, grown there to such a size that they would soon become too heavy for the branch, the way fruit is before it falls off and bruises on the ground if the picker stays away for a time. There were trees with blonde children, and others with black or brunette hair.

With his face turned upwards, the picker stepped around and through the trees, determining where the most girls and the most boys grew, and in case there was an equal number of each for a change, he sat on the ground and observed the behavior of the children from between the leaves: their facial expressions, the glances they threw one another, the gestures with their tiny hands, and the attempts to work themselves loose from the twig - which naturally did not succeed because the connection to the mother-tree was in their backs where they could not reach.

The movements of those children who were left-over in the autumn and endured the winter in the crown of the tree grew weaker in the cool season, because the cold sapped their body-heat and their skin became bluish-red and stiff-frozen. Quietness hovered over the clearing after a fresh snowfall, and now and then a tiny cornice of snow would fall to the ground as one of the children opened its eyes or sneezed. On winter days such as these, the picker came only to see that his trees and the fruits he wanted to sell early in the year were not being harmed by the frost.

The picker stepped over to a tree, grasped a girl by the leg and pulled gently until the branch broke, released the child, and snapped back. He opened the basket and placed the girl, who was watching him with big, surprised eyes, inside. He then reached for a boy, followed by a second, and then went to the next tree and plucked a pair of blonde-haired children.

He was careful not to fully strip a tree as he painstakingly made his selection. He spoke not a word as he went about his work, whereas another of his weight would have groaned with the effort.

The children had flourished magnificently this year, and he was already anticipating the profit he would earn on his trip back through the countryside.

When the basket was so full that he could only carry more with effort, he paused from his work. Then he began to wind his way back the way he had come. He whistled a cheerful melody and attempted a few leaps out of sheer high-spirits. He switched the basket from his left hand to his right and back again, hardly noticing the weight of the children.

He again began to leap into the air, but this time, his foot got tangled among the roots of a tree, and as he tried to regain his balance by swinging his arms in circles, he toppled forward and fell sprawling along the length of the footpath. The basket flew out of his hand, spun over several times, rolled along the path, and finally pitched over the edge of the embankment. At the same time, the picker, having finally managed to free his foot from the roots, jumped up and ran after the basket, which was caught in a bush several meters away.

Shocked and panting with anger, he knelt on the ground, righted the basket, and opened it. He shook his head ever so slightly as he gazed at the muddled confusion of individual arms and legs, feet and hands, rumps and heads, which had totally lost their relationship to each other. Dumbfounded, he pulled a small leg out, looked at it from all sides, surprised that the little bodies had not held together better than that. In disappointment, he tossed the leg back, closed the basket, and carried it back up to the path.

It occurred to him that a brook flowed nearby, and he took it upon himself to pour the contents of the basket in the water and rinse it away before he went to visit the clearing with the fruit-bearing trees a second time.

(From: Lose/Destinies. Translation by: Anne Holcomb, Little Rock, USA)