Summer Strawberries

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in The Voice of Dog, April 2020


The golden sunlight flowed outward like dripping honey, extruding itself into the glowing form of a snarling bear.” (Art by Lane Lowd)

Jenna slammed shut the refrigerator door and kicked it.  The strawberries were gone.  Mom knew Jenna was saving them but must have eaten them herself or fed them to the baby anyway.  Jenna was so mad she could scream.

She stomped into the computer room where Mom was working at the computer with Baby Riley asleep on her lap.  Mom shushed her and whispered, “You need to be quieter.  Riley’s sleeping.”

Jenna rolled her eyes.  Riley was always sleeping.  “What happened to my strawberries?” she asked, hoping to shame her mom over stealing them.

“I threw them out,” Mom said.  “They were all fuzzy.”

Righteous anger turned over in Jenna’s stomach and curdled into queasy devastation.  “Can we buy some more?”  She knew the answer.

“Aunt Molly brought those over.  I don’t buy summer fruit in the middle of winter.  It’s too expensive.”

Jenna cried out in exasperation:  “Then when will I get to eat more strawberries?!”

Mom’s eyes widened and her lips tightened in silent fury.  Baby Riley stirred on her lap and started crying.  “Go to your room,” she said, but Jenna was already on her way.

Jenna wanted to scream and throw things, but Aunt Molly had taught her to channel that feeling.  As soon as she got to her room, Jenna shut the door and got out the spell book she’d hidden under the folded shirts in her dresser.  She lay on her bed and flipped through the pages.

She flipped past the easy spells; she was tired of making her dolls dance or paper fold itself into origami.  She wanted to play outside, but it had been raining for days.  That’s why she wanted the strawberries so badly:  they tasted like summer.

If Jenna couldn’t taste summer, then she would summon a summer elemental.

The spell would have been easier at Aunt Molly’s house.  She kept all sorts of supplies ready for spells all the time.  At her own house, Jenna had to improvise.

Instead of smooth agates with beautiful ripples of purple and white, she found plain old rocks in the mud outside.  Instead of peacock feathers with shimmering eyes, she pulled a few feathers off of a school art project from a year ago.  Instead of the big lumpy crystals of sea salt that Aunt Molly kept, Jenna used iodized table salt, borrowed from the kitchen.

The hardest part was choosing an item to represent the spirit of summer.  She knew from Aunt Molly that none of the supplies mattered as much as her pronunciation and sincerity when she said the spell, but she wanted an emblem of summer that would be perfect.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single strawberry left.  But there was still golden honey in the honey bear.

Jenna snuck the supplies outside in her raincoat and crawled under the giant bush by the side of the house.  It was almost dry inside its evergreen, shrubby branches.

Jenna drew a circle with the table salt over the damp pine needles on the ground.  The sprinkled salt disappeared into the ground.  Then Jenna set the rocks she’d gathered on the edges of the invisible circle, at the four points that corresponded to the cardinal directions.  She chanted a prayer of thanks to each direction.  Then she held out the feathers, one by one, and spoke words that lifted them from her hand, whirling them into a wind that spun around the little, consecrated circle.

The wind bit deeply into her arm as Jenna reached into the whirlwind to place the honey bear in the center of the circle.  She shivered, but she continued chanting.

As soon as Jenna put down the honey bear, her senses exploded with the smell of fresh cut grass, the buzzing of bees, the warmth of sunlight on her back, and the taste of summer strawberries.

Jenna laughed and clapped her hands.  The spell had worked!  The summer elemental must be on its way through the dimensions!  She knew it would appear any moment, but she was suddenly overcome with drowsiness.  Jenna lay down, feeling the thick, green grass beneath her, and soaked up the sense of summer.  Warm, safe, happy.

She must have fallen asleep, because Jenna awoke to the sound of her dad calling her for dinner.  Summer was gone.  Her back ached from the hard ground, and her fingers were stiff with cold.  She fumbled as she gathered the salt shaker, honey bear, and feathers back into the deep pockets of her rain coat.  She left the rocks where they were.

“What were you doing outside?” Dad asked.  “You look cold.”

“Pretending it was summer,” Jenna said, miserably.

“It doesn’t look like it worked very well.”  Dad took Jenna’s raincoat and shook the rain off.  Fortunately, he didn’t notice the big lump in the pocket where Jenna had stuffed the salt shaker and honey bear.

Jenna frowned.  She needed a binding reagent to keep the summer elemental from putting her to sleep and running away.  All through dinner, she watched Riley, trapped in his high chair between Mom and Dad, and thought about different ways to bind a summer elemental.  If only it were as easy as strapping her troublesome baby brother into a high chair…

After dinner, Mom took Riley upstairs to give him a bath, and Jenna tried to surreptitiously wrestle his high chair into the backyard and under the bush.  It didn’t fit well.  Jenna had to lay the chair down on its side.

She repeated her spell from earlier, but this time the warm, green, summery feeling didn’t make her drowsy.  Anticipation prickled the back of her neck as the dark space under the bush flooded with sudden sunlight, coming from everywhere and nowhere, bouncing around her until it coalesced into a honey-gold ball trapped inside the sideways high chair.

The golden sunlight flowed outward like dripping honey, extruding itself into the glowing form of a snarling bear.  The wooden bars of the high chair splintered around the bear, leaving only broken pieces and a square of wooden slats forming a yoke around the bear’s neck.

“You summoned?” the bear growled.  Its glowing dimmed until Jenna could make out the details of her summer elemental — it had red-dimpled crescent horns and claws, almost as if they were made from strawberry skin; its fur was the tawny color of honey; and its eyes were covered by silver sunglasses.

“You are so cool,” Jenna said.

The bear grumbled.  “Perhaps you meant to summon a winter elemental.  They’re better at cool.  If you release me from my bonds, you can try again.”

“Not a chance,” Jenna said.  “You’re my new best friend.  And I want strawberries.”  She pointed at the thick green grass under the bear’s paws.

The bear’s muzzle twisted in a snarl, but strawberry plants sprouted at its feet.  The plants blossomed with perfect white petals, and grew green buds into rich red berries.  All in the matter of moments.

Jenna picked and ate the berries eagerly.  She ate until her stomach hurt, and her hands and mouth were sticky and stained.  Then she heard her mother calling, “Jenna!  Bedtime!”

“Pits!” Jenna swore.  “You have to stay here, right?  You’ll still be here tomorrow?”

The bear’s answer was a low, unhappy grumble.  “Unless you release me, yes.”  He pawed at the wooden yoke of high chair around his neck.

“That looks uncomfortable,” Jenna said.  “If I take it off, do you still have to stay?”

After a pause, the bear admitted:  “As long as you keep a piece of the binding object with you, I’ll be bound here.”

Jenna kicked her foot at the pile of splintered high chair.  There was a piece of one of the straps with a shiny metal buckle attached to it.  “Perfect,” she said, picking up the strap and buckle.  She shoved them in her pocket.  Then she helped the bear remove the piece of high chair from his head.

#

Jenna had trouble sleeping that night, thinking about all the fun she could have with her summer elemental.  This was going to make the last week of winter vacation so much better!

Unfortunately, when Jenna came downstairs in the morning, she found two very grumpy parents, a pile of splintered wood on the kitchen table, and a baby brother who was gleefully uncontained and practicing crawling on the floor.

“Do you know what happened to Riley’s high chair?” Mom asked.

Clearly a loaded question.  Apparently, Jenna should have hidden the high chair better than by leaving it under the bush.  Although, she prickled at the idea of Mom and Dad messing around under the evergreen bush.  That was her space.

Jenna dodged the question.  “You didn’t see a giant glowing bear, you know, skulking around the bush, did you?”

Mom rolled her eyes, and Dad sighed.  “I’ll go see if we have the old high chair in the garage still,” he said.

Mom said, “Jenna, you’ll have to play with Riley while I make breakfast.”  She wandered into the kitchen muttering about destructive tendencies and troublesome daughters.  Jenna was offended.

Once both of her parents were out of earshot, Jenna got down next to Riley on the floor and whispered in his ear, “Do you want to meet a bear?”

Riley gurgled.  Close enough.  Jenna grabbed her baby brother around his middle and carried him awkwardly into the living room.  She set him down on the carpet, and he began crawling toward a couch.

“Wait there,” Jenna said.  Then she rushed to the door into the backyard, stepped outside, and called into the rain, “Summer Bear!  I summon thee!”

The honey-colored bear, glowing dimly like the sun behind clouds, emerged from a different bush on the far side of the yard and lumbered towards her.  “Thee?” he asked, lowering his head to look at her over the tops of his silver sunglasses.  His eyes were fire red.  “Seriously?”

Jenna giggled.  “Thou theeful thineful self musteth follow me inside.”  She giggled more.  “Oh, but you’re quick at hiding, right?”

“Sure,” the bear agreed sarcastically.  “That’s what we elementals live for.  Hiding in bushes.”

“Or behind couches?” Jenna asked hopefully.

“I can hide behind a couch if my summoner commands.”

So while Mom made breakfast, Jenna and Riley played with the summer bear, commanding him to hide strawberries all over the living room like Easter eggs.  They left tiny pink stains on the carpet and couch cushions.

“You make a good Easter Bunny,” Jenna said.  “I’ll have to re-summon you this spring.”

“Oh joy,” the bear grumbled.  “Does that mean you’ll be releasing me soon?”

Jenna didn’t answer.  Her mouth was too full of strawberries.

Neither child was very hungry for breakfast.  Mom glared at them as they poked listlessly at her homemade whole wheat pancakes.  Both children kept sneaking glances at the couch the summer bear had hidden behind.  Several times Mom threatened to go check what was back there, but when she finally went, the bear must have found an even better way to hide.

Mom knew nothing.  Jenna felt like a genius.  A wizarding genius.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of warm, hazy fun.  Once Jenna was able to ditch Riley and get outside, she had her summer elemental cast bubbles of sunlight into curtains of rain, casting rainbows everywhere.  She splashed through puddles, and then the bear blasted her with gusts of warm air until she dried off again.  It was all the fun of water play in the middle of the summer, except in reverse:  rainy water everywhere, counterpointed with streaks and streams of sunshine.

Jenna had never had a better day in her life.

And the snarky bear was a big part of it.  She’d never been good at making or keeping friends, and no matter how grumpy the bear was, he made for a consistent and reliable playmate.

“I wish I could bring you to school with me when winter break’s over,” Jenna said.  Twilight was thick, and though the bear could have glowed enough to counter the growing dark, it would have made him easy for her parents to spot.  Like a bonfire in the backyard.

The bear grumbled, and Jenna was sure he was glaring behind his silver sunglasses.  Well, as sure as she was that he had eyes behind those glasses… which was not sure at all.  Jenna was starting think his eyes were the glasses.  She giggled.  The bear harrumphed.

“I know, I know,” Jenna said.  “You want to be released, not hang around outside some dreary school.”

The bear looked away, unwilling to dignify Jenna’s repetition of the obvious with a response.

“Where will you go when I release you?”  Jenna asked.  “Or, I guess, where did you come from before I summoned you?  Is it the same place?”

The bear looked back at Jenna, surprise creasing the fur of its brow.  “Why wouldn’t it be the same place?”

Jenna shrugged and kicked at one of the bear’s strawberry plants that had already withered on the ground.  “I dunno.  I was afraid that maybe elementals who get summoned by humans are… tainted or something.  Maybe they don’t get to go back home.”  She looked up at the bear.  “I’m glad that’s not the case.  I didn’t want to ruin your life forever.  I’d like it if you didn’t hate me.”

“I am not alive,” the bear said.  “I am an aspect of nature refracted by culture.  I exist.  I do not have a life.”

Jenna wasn’t sure if that was good.  She also noticed that the bear hadn’t taken her bait and said he didn’t hate her.  That was fair, she supposed.  But it stung.  “Even if you’re a refraction, not a living being, well, I wouldn’t want to be like a smudge or a flaw in the… uh… crystal… or culture… that refracts you.  Whatever.  I’m saying that I hope when you go home — or wherever you go — that you’ll be happy.”  She kicked the dead strawberry plant hard enough to hurt her big toe inside her shoe.  “I just know that sometimes when things change, they never go back to the way they were supposed to be.”

Jenna was talking about Riley.  Before she had a baby brother, all of the treats and toys in the house were for her.  Every outing was designed to make her happy.  Now they could only go to a restaurant if it was baby friendly.  And somehow, even though it made no sense, Jenna blamed Riley her special strawberries molding.

Jenna didn’t wait for the bear to say anything more.  She stormed into the house, bringing the bitter cold of the winter inside with her, while summer stayed outside, warm, wonderful, and harshly unloving.

#

In the morning, Jenna lay in bed, fiddling with the metal buckle that bound her summer elemental to this plane of existence.  She wondered what the bear’s existence was like when it wasn’t summoned.  Probably abstract like an idea or ethereal like a warm breeze.  But Jenna liked imagining that he’d come from an alternate dimension where the sun shone forever — no winter, no night — and everything was a jumble of jungle greens and gemstone bright ripe fruits.

Jenna wished she could be a summer elemental with her bear, and they could float through her imagined jungle like air spirits — something between overly anthropomorphic fairies and impossibly ephemeral zephyrs.

Something like gummy bears — small, translucent, squishy — with tiny iridescent wings.

Jenna started humming as she danced the metal buckle through the air above her face, pretending it was a friendly bee that she and her fairy-bear had met and invited to tea.  Bees would be good guests at a tea party, since they’d be very likely to bring along honey to share.

Thinking about honey reminded Jenna of Winnie the Pooh, and so she climbed out of bed and found her dog-eared paperback of it on the bookshelf.  After an hour of reading, Jenna realized that she’d been ignoring her summer elemental all morning.  He’d be outside, warming the shrubbery, and wondering why she bothered with keeping him bound here if she couldn’t be bothered to spend time with him.

She honestly wasn’t sure.

Jenna was about to whisper the words of the unbinding spell to the metal buckle when she heard the doorbell ring downstairs.  She put her book back on the shelf, changed from pajamas into a shirt and pants that were unseasonably lightweight, and crept downstairs to see who her parents had found at the door.  She kept the buckle safely tucked in a pocket.

In the living room, Aunt Molly was talking to Mom.  “Are you sure you want me to fix it?”  Aunt Molly’s voice always made Jenna feel safe and happy.  And really warm.  No, wait, that was the room…  “It’s so nice and toasty in here, and everywhere else is freezing.”

They were looking at the thermostat.  Mom and Dad didn’t know that Aunt Molly was a witch.  They just thought she was really clever at fixing things.

“It’s not safe,” Mom said.  “A broken heater could burn the house down.”

Jenna didn’t know if that was true.  But she was pretty sure an angry summer elemental could.  Jenna slipped into the kitchen before Aunt Molly or Mom could notice her, grabbed a piece of cornbread leftover from last night’s dinner, and slipped outside to find the bear.

He was sitting under the evergreen shrubs, summoning balls of fire between his paws and then blowing them out like birthday candles.  He looked bored.

A twig snapped under Jenna’s foot, and the bear looked up.  She could have sworn his soft, honey glow brightened at the sight of her, and her own heart warmed.  Though, that might have been literal more than emotional.

At the sight of Jenna, the bear abandoned his fire balls and began growing strawberry plants.  Jenna smiled.  She picked the first few berries to redden and smashed them on her stale cornbread.  The strawberries were perfect.  It was the best breakfast she could remember.

“Are you making it too hot inside my house?” Jenna asked around a mouthful of cornbread crumbles.

The bear didn’t answer, except to summon another fireball between his paws like a tiny sun, pulled down from the night sky.  Then pfft, it fizzled away.

Jenna knew she should feel threatened by a giant magical bear making fireballs between its paws, but she also knew what the bear wanted.  And with the impudence of youth, she believed the bear wouldn’t dare hurt her as long as she had the metal buckle to control it.

Of course, burning her house down wouldn’t render her incapable of chanting the release spell.  And Mom would just assume the fire had been a dangerously broken heater.

And once Jenna unbound the elemental, she wasn’t sure what the rules were about it coming back… for revenge…

The ripe strawberries turned sour in Jenna’s mouth.  She hated it when her mother was right:  she needed to be more careful.

“Jeeeeennaaaaa!” called Aunt Molly’s voice from the backdoor.

After casting a final nervous glance at the grumpy bear, Jenna clambered out from her hiding spot under the bushes.  Aunt Molly had closed the back door behind her and was poking at some sort of electrical box on the outside of the house.  When she saw Jenna, she said, “Ah, good, I figured you’d be out here.  What did you summon?”

“What do you mean?” Jenna asked before she could catch her tongue and remember who she was talking to.  Mom and Dad might not know that she’d been sneaking a giant glowing bear around the house.  But Aunt Molly couldn’t be tricked.

Aunt Molly raised an eyebrow and otherwise stared at Jenna levelly, waiting for her to fold.

“It’s not my fault,” Jenna said in a rush.  “Mom threw away the last of the strawberries that you brought over, and I knew you meant them as a special treat for me, and it’ll be months until Mom’s willing to buy strawberries at the store, so what was I supposed to do?”

“Wait until then?” Aunt Molly hazarded, but she smiled in amusement at Jenna’s predictable pout in response.  “Okay, so what did you do?”

Jenna pointed shyly at the bushes.  Aunt Molly sighed, but she was one of those cool adults who still did fun things, so after her sigh, she crawled into the bushes like a kid.  Jenna followed.

The bear looked at both of them through its silvery sunglasses.  Inscrutable.  Huffy.  The season of wildfires and lightning storms incarnate.

“I see,” Aunt Molly said, hands and knees in the dirt so that she could fit under the branches without too many pine branches hitting her face.  “How long has this been going on?”

“An eternity of unending moments,” the bear rumbled.

“Three days,” Jenna said.  She pulled the metal buckle out of her pocket.  “He’s bound here by this.  But I’m afraid to release him.”

“With the way he’s baking the insides of the house,” Aunt Molly said, “I can see why.  It’s a good thing your mother asked me to come fix the heater, and didn’t call an actual electrician.”

“What do we do?” Jenna whispered.  She was glad her aunt was here.  Aunt Molly always knew what to do.

“First we get me back out of this bush.”  She turned awkwardly, trying to figure out how to back her way out of a space that was too small for her.  She seemed to mind prickly evergreen branches scratching at her more than the bear did, and her adult lengthed limbs were much less maneuverable than Jenna’s shorter ones.

Once they were back out in the light drizzle of mid-morning, Jenna said, “So what’s the plan?  Permanent banishment?”  She clapped her hands excitedly.  “I know!  You summon an opposite elemental and they cancel each other out by fighting to the death!”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Jenna looked around at the wintry weather surrounding them and realized what an opposite elemental would be.  Winter.  And there was already plenty of winter here, not killing the giant glowing summer bear.

“We give the summer elemental a good day, a really good day, so that it’s not mad at you for summoning it.”

Jenna nodded, sagely, as if she knew what Aunt Molly was suggesting.  But she had no clue.  She’d had a great time with the summer elemental these last few days, and the bear had been nothing but grumpy.  She didn’t know what summer elementals wanted.  Other than being unsummoned… day before yesterday…

“So…” Jenna prompted, “we… uh…”

“Summon an autumn elemental,” Aunt Molly said.  “That will settle the summer one down.”

“And what settles an autumn elemental down?”

“Winter.”

Jenna’s eyes widened as she imagined an infinite chain of elementals summoned, each one to soothe the last, like a bigger and more magical version of “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.”  If the summer elemental was threatening Jenna with fire, what would an angry autumn elemental threaten her with?  Blasts of damp, moldy leaves?  Jenna shuddered.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Jenna said.  She didn’t usually doubt Aunt Molly.  And maybe the fact that it actually was winter would be enough to keep the autumn elemental under control.

“I need to get a few things from my car,” Aunt Molly said.  “I’ll be right back.”

Aunt Molly’s car was a treasure trove.  She always kept basic spellcasting supplies on hand, even in her car, so it was filled with sacks of random odds and ends.  Mom was always bugging her to clean it out.  But Jenna loved it.  Every time she rode in the old clunker (as Mom called it), she came away with a coin from a foreign country or a strand of beads or maybe just a pretty rock that Aunt Molly let her keep.

This time, Aunt Molly returned with a small bag of pink sea salt, a handful of dried leaves, and a piece of candy corn that must have been really stale.  They weren’t the most impressive supplies, and that made Jenna feel better about her own summoning spell with feathers, plain rocks, and a honey bear.

“Where’s your summoning circle?” Aunt Molly asked.

Jenna pointed back at the bush, and Aunt Molly rolled her eyes.

“Of course…”  She got back down on hands and knees to crawl under the curtain of pine needles.

Jenna followed, and when they got to the middle with the bear, she pointed out the rocks she’d used before.  They were still there, and it made Jenna feel oddly proud that Aunt Molly didn’t hesitate to use them herself.  She simply sprinkled a little of her expensive pink sea salt over them in a circle, reinforcing the circle that was already there.

Then Aunt Molly said the prayers of thanks to each cardinal direction, dropped each leaf into the growing whirlwind inside the circle sequentially, and finally placed the single candy corn in the middle.

The summer bear looked very interested.

Jenna’s senses exploded with the smell of hot apple cider, the sound of leaves crunching beneath her feet, the feel of chilled air goose-pimpling her neck, and the taste of pumpkin pie.

In the middle of the circle, the candy corn wobbled, shaking until it was practically dancing on the pine needle covered ground.  Tiny green buds emerged all over the orange and white candy and grew into twisty green vines.  The candy corn itself bulged, growing larger, until it took the shape of a giant gourd, while keeping the characteristic stripes of the original candy corn.

Behind the circle, sitting on his big glowing butt, the summer bear was grinning.  His silver sunglasses reflected the autumn elemental, and his round ears stood straighter than Jenna had previously seen them.

Aunt Molly said, “Summer loves fall.  Fall loves winter, and winter loves spring.”

“Spring loves summer?” Jenna asked.

Aunt Molly nodded.  “The wheel of the year.  They chase each other in endless circles, always too late.  And too early.”

The autumn elemental’s green vines grew leaves and tiny white flowers that opened to reveal candy corn buds inside.  The vines danced, and when the squash in the middle turned toward Jenna, she saw it had a jack-o-lantern grin.

“Won’t it be mad that you summoned it?” Jenna asked nervously.  She could imagine those vines luring her in with candy corn treats… and then strangling her.

“I’ve been summoning this particular elemental ever since I was your age, Jenna.  We’re old friends.”  Aunt Molly reached a hand out, and one of the vines wrapped around her arm in a cozy, familiar way.  Halloween always had been her favorite holiday.

“Why didn’t it ever get mad and… you know, strangle you or choke you with candy?”

The autumn elemental had wrapped its vines around the summer bear’s arms and torso like a knit sweater, and the squash-o-lantern was balancing on the bear’s head like a ridiculous hat.  Both elementals were grinning as wide as could be.  The summer elemental might have been the one in love, but the autumn elemental didn’t seem too unhappy either.

“I always summoned it in the winter at first.  For years.  And autumn loves winter.”

Jenna could picture her aunt as a kid, missing Halloween during the boring parts of winter break, and deciding to summon an autumn elemental to grow candy corn for her.  Jenna wished she had a friend like the girl her aunt must have been.  At least Jenna had her aunt.

“Hey, could we, um, tell Mom that you need me to come help you clean out your spell — I mean, craft — room, or something?”

Aunt Molly looked at her.  “Feeling cooped up at home?”

Jenna shrugged.  “A little.”  It would be pretty boring at home for the next few days without a grumpy summer bear to play with her.

“What have you got left — three, four days of winter break?”

“Three,” Jenna said.

“Perfect, that’s how long it will take me to organize my craft room.  I’ll go tell your mom, and you go grab your sleeping bag and stuff.”

“A sleepover?”  Jenna’s voice rose in an excited squeal.  When she stayed at Aunt Molly’s house, they always ate frozen pizza and toasted s’mores over scented candles using toothpicks, mini-marshmallows, and Teddy Grahams.

Aunt Molly nodded solemnly.  “There’s a lot of craft supplies to organize.  And some serious late night talks to be had about how best to tame elementals.”

Jenna began scrambling out of from under the bush, in a hurry to get packed, but Aunt Molly called after her:  “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Oh, right.”  Jenna placed the metal buckle on the ground at the summer bear’s feet and whispered the words of unbinding.  The bear was too busy chuckling at the vines growing around its furry arms and snuffling at the candy corn buds to notice.

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