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The strawberries, by Émile Zola

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I

One morning in June, when I opened the window, I received a breath of fresh air in my face. It was a violent storm during the night. The sky looked like new, of a tender blue, washed by the shower down to its smallest corners. The roofs, the trees whose high branches I could see between the chimneys, were still soaked with rain, and that end of the horizon laughed beneath the yellow sun. There was a good smell of wet earth rising from the neighboring gardens.

“Come on, Ninette,” I cried gaily, “put on your hat, my daughter.”

We leave for the countryside.

She clapped her hands. She had finished her dress in ten minutes, which is very meritorious for a coquette of twenty years.

At nine o’clock we were in the woods of Verrieres.

II

What discreet woods, and how many lovers have carried their loves in it! During the week, the coppices are deserted, one can walk side by side, arms with the waist, lips looking for lips, with no other danger than to be seen by the warblers of the bushes. The alleys are stretched, high and broad, through the great forests; the ground is covered with a carpet of fine grass, on which the sun, piercing the foliage, throws golden palets. And there are hollow paths, narrow paths, very dark, where one is obliged to squeeze one against the other. And there are still impenetrable thickets, where one can get lost if the kisses have too much taste.

Ninon was leaving my arm, running like a young dog, happy to feel the grass brush against his ankles. Then she came back and hung on my shoulder, weary, caressing. Always the wood stretched, endless sea to the waves of greenery. The shuddering silence, the living shadow that fell from the tall trees, rose to our heads and inebriate us with all the fiery sap of spring. One becomes child again, in the mystery of thickets.

Oh! Strawberries, strawberries! cried Ninon, jumping a ditch like an escaped goat, and rummaging through the bushes.

III

Strawberries, alas! No, but strawberry plants, a whole layer of strawberry plants spread out beneath the brambles.

Ninon no longer thought of the beasts of which she had a horrible fear. She walked gaily with her hands in the midst of herbs, lifting every leaf, desperate not to meet the least fruit.

“We was preceded,” she said, with a look of vexation. “Oh!”, she said, let us seek, there are still some.

And we began to seek with exemplary consciousness. With our bodies folded, our necks stretched, our eyes fixed on the ground, we proceeded with careless steps, without risking a word, fearing to not miss the strawberries. We had forgotten the forest, the silence and the shadow, the wide paths and the narrow paths. Strawberries, just strawberries. At each tuft we met, we stooped, and our trembling hands touched each other under the grass.

We thus made more than a league, curved, wandering to the right, to the left. Not the smallest strawberry. Superb strawberry plants, with beautiful leaves of a dark green. I could see Ninon’s lips pinching and his eyes getting wet.

IV

We had arrived in front of a broad slope, on which the sun was falling straight, with heavy heat. Ninon approached the slope, determined not to seek further. Suddenly, she uttered a shrill cry. I ran away, frightened, thinking she had hurt herself. I found her crouching; the emotion had seated her on the ground, and she pointed to a small strawberry, scarcely as big as a pea, ripe on one side only.

“Gather her, you,” she said to me in a low, caressing voice.

I sat close to her, at the bottom of the bank.

“No,” I replied, “you have found her; you must pick her.”

“No, give me this pleasure, pick it up.”

I defended myself so well that Ninon finally decided to cut the stalk with his nail. But it was a different story when we had to know which of us would eat this poor little strawberry that cost us a good hour of research. Ninon wanted to put it in my mouth. I resisted firmly; then I finally made concessions, and it was decided that the strawberry would be divided in two.

She put it between her lips, telling me with a smile:

“Come on, take your part.”

I took my part. I do not know if the strawberry was divided fraternally.

I do not even know if I tasted strawberry, so much the honey of the kiss of Ninon seemed good to me.

V

The embankment was covered with strawberry plants, and those were serious plants. The harvest was ample and joyous. We had spread a white handkerchief on the ground, swearing solemnly to lay down our booty, without diverting anything from it. Several times, however, it seemed to me that Ninon would carry his hand to his mouth.

When the harvest was done, we decided it was time to look for a corner of shade for lunch at ease. I found, a few steps away, a charming hole, a nest of leaves. The handkerchief was religiously placed beside us.

Great gods! That it was good there, on the moss, in the voluptuousness of this green freshness! Ninon looked at me with damp eyes. The sun had put tender redness on his neck. As she saw all my tenderness in my eyes, she leaned towards me, holding out my hands with a gesture of adorable abandon.

The sun, blazing on the high foliage, threw golden shovels at our feet into the fine grass. The warblers themselves were silent and did not look at us. When we searched for the strawberries to eat them, we found with amazement that we were lying right on the handkerchief.

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