Huckleberry pie for dinner, what could be lovelier? Gretchen Eberstark thought as she lifted a bucket of dark, succulent berries, still warm from the sun, into the back of her station wagon. Though most afternoons would find her in her shop, The Calico Cuckoo Quilting Fabrics and Supplies on Marienstadt’s Main Street, since her marriage to Oliver Eberstark a few weeks earlier, she spent less time there. She opened the shop in the morning, but whenever one of her employees, Trish Ritter or Miss Martha Neubert, was available, she left them in charge and drove back down into Opelt’s Wood to spend time with her new husband.
On this particular day she had found her husband sitting on the steps outside the kitchen door, pulling off a pair of wet and filthy waders, a pick axe propped beside the porch.
“Hi,” she said, as she parked and lifted a bag of groceries out of the car. “What have you been doing?” She leaned down to kiss him and saw that he was soaking wet—his hair, his beard, the sweatshirt he wore. “You have leaves in your beard.” She plucked a little green leaf trapped in the sparkling red hair.
“Careful,” Oliver said. “I’m filthy.” With a final yank he pulled the waders loose. He stood to hang them from a hook near the kitchen door. “I spent most of the morning busting up that beaver dam I was telling you about.”
“The one down by the dead elm trees?”
He nodded. “Yeah. I don’t begrudge the beavers space to build but that dam was blocking a bend in the crick and it’s flooding. The morels in that area are just starting to come back and I don’t want to lose them.”
Over the months of her engagement and now marriage to Oliver, Gretchen was discovering a whole new world of woodland wonders. In addition to his clock-making business and the management of Opelt’s Wood, Oliver was scrupulously exploring ways to restore and improve the woods he loved. One of his projects involved acquiring mushroom spores for some of the wild mushrooms that had once flourished in these woods. After attending a workshop on wild mushroom cultivation at a nearby Penn State campus, he scouted out the best growing places for morels, miataki, and chicken mushrooms and set to work.
“What are you going to do with them?” Gretchen asked the first time he carried a basket full of the peculiar looking fungus into the kitchen of the house they shared.
“Fry ‘em up with butter and wild garlic.” He grinned. “You’ll never taste anything better.”
She regarded them with no small amount of skepticism as he washed and trimmed them at the sink and placed them on paper towels to dry. “How do you know they’re not poisonous?”
He grinned his slow, mischievous grin. “Don’t you trust me?”
She took a deep breath. “Well, yes.”
“Doesn’t sound like it.” He winked at her. “You better get used to eating wild if you’re going to live with me, baby.”
At the time she thought he was just flirting but as they spent more time together, and especially after she moved in, she discovered that the delicious wild mushrooms he served were often accompanied by fish from Pistner’s Run, bear meat or venison, hearty stews flavored with ramps gathered near swamp land, and salads of wild greens and all kinds of nuts and berries. She grew to love all of it.
“How did you get so wet?” she had asked that morning as she followed him into the house.
“Toots decided to help me.” He held the door for her. “She’s a lot less help than she thinks she is.”
Toots, Oliver’s huge Newfie/shepherd mix dog, lay in a pool of sunshine in the grass just outside his workshop, her lush, black coat gleaming.
“I hope you’re hungry.” She placed her bag of groceries on the cupboard and began unpacking it. “I stopped at Kneidel’s Meat Market and Andy was just putting some of his bratwurst out. He had home-made rye bread from that new little bakery.” She turned toward him but Oliver had gone into the laundry room and was peeling off his sweatshirt.
“Oh my,” she whispered.
“What?” He turned around.
Gretchen took a deep breath and crossed to him. “I guess I’m not yet used to seeing my beautiful husband’s beautiful body in the middle of the day.” She placed her hands on his wide chest, running her fingers up through its hair.
He bent his head to kiss her and they forgot all about the bratwurst and rye bread.
“You’re a wild one,” Oliver said some time later as they ate their lunch. “I wasn’t expecting that but I’m sure not complaining.”
She felt the blood rising in her cheeks and kept her eyes on her plate.
“I told Jim Loeffler that I’d deliver the clock he ordered.” His voice teased her gently. “Is it safe for me to leave you alone for a couple hours?”
“Stop it.” She glanced up at him and was reminded once again how much she loved to see him smile. “I thought I’d drive down the grade to that huckleberry patch you showed me and pick some for muffins.”
“Good idea.” He stood, carried his plate to the sink, then bent down and kissed the back of her neck. “I’ll see you later. Don’t get lost.”
It turned out there were far more ripe huckleberries than she had imagined. She smiled as she worked, the sunshine warming her arms and shoulders while the recent memories warmed her heart. Small white moths in pairs danced around her and before she knew it she had a bucket brimming with berries. As she closed the back of the station wagon, she heard the rattle of a truck approaching. Gretchen turned in time to see a beaten-up Dodge Durango come into view. She smiled and lifted a hand in greeting.
“Well, if you ain’t a sight for sore eyes.” A head of thick, shiny white hair above a weather-beaten face leaned out the window. “What the heck are you doing way out here?”
“Hi, Ezra.” She walked over and leaned against the truck door. “It’s good to see you. I might ask you the same thing.”
“Jest takin’ a ride. You know me, I ain’t really happy if I can’t get out in the woods pritneer every day. Oliver don’t mind if I ride around in Opelt’s Wood, does he?”
“Of course not.” She leaned in the window and kissed his wrinkled cheek. Though Ezra Winter was past eighty he was a husky, well-built man with a sparkle in his eyes and a sly sense of humor. Gretchen’s grandfather, Judah, and Ezra’s father, Silas, had been brothers. Gretchen grew up thinking of Ezra as more of an uncle than cousin. “Besides, you’re related now that Oliver and I are married.”
“Boy, that was some wedding you two had. The whole time I kept thinking how much I wished my old buddy, Thad, was there to see it. Me and Thad about grew up together. He sure would have liked it that his grandson married into our family.”
“Oliver said that, too.”
Ezra studied her with his bright blue eyes. “You look like you’re takin’ to married life just fine.”
“I am. Oliver had to make a delivery so I came out here to pick some huckleberries for a pie or dumplings.” She lowered her eyes. “I want to surprise my husband.”
“Oh, honey.” Ezra put his hard, gnarled hand over one of hers and squeezed it. “I expect getting to see that sweet, pretty face of yours every day is surprise enough for him.”