Mike’s Hard Winter Blackberry

Ahh…wintertime in Wales. Snow covering the coal mines, my father’s rattly breath. We didn’t have much–a stove, a bucket, mom’s tattered bonnets, and the piano where I was made to practice 9 hours a day so as to avoid following dad and my five brothers into a life of pickaxes and blacklung. From dawn to tea I would play as my mother babbled of angels and cursed my sister’s for making herself unmarryable by transacting dropsy. Then the men would wander home, mere eye slits amongst soot stains. They’d devour their rarebit and begin demanding blackberry grog, the hardest, manliest, and most wintry drink ever produced.

O, how mother would wail as they sang their awful coal shanties, filling our small shed with fetid gusts of blackberries and blanched malt product. She would break down by the time they’d demanded a fifth grog and beg Seamus to stop taunting his poor, squishy sister with his axe, and her request would be met with a firm smack and a rejoinder to remain quiet while the men continued consuming their man product.

They would call me names: “Piano Lad” was the most common, and hurtful, for they knew it wasn’t my fault the lord had bowed my shins and made me unfit for real work. Yet even as I sat quaking in the corner, dreading the inevitable moment when one of them would rise and demand I begin signing in the style of Patience and Prudence, even as the profanely masculine smell of their delicate beverage signaled fear and shame, even them I envied them and their berry drink.