Orange soda slides down my parched throat – each fizzy bubble burns and prickles. In my seven-year-old mind, these are tiny starbursts; I imagine the bright colours erupting in my throat like the sprinkles Maman put on my birthday cake in March. Later, I will associate the sensation with fireworks splaying fingers on the first of July. But not yet.
Right now, Maman, my brothers, my sister, and I are sitting in the shade of the tall shelterbelt that protects us from the wind that’s raging across southern Saskatchewan. We rarely see Lassie during the day, yet here he is panting at our feet. Even he has grown weary of the heat.
“It’d better rain soon, or we’re gonna have another goddamn drought,” I overheard Papa say to Maman in the kitchen this morning. Her cigarette was trembling between her lips; I was about to spring up and warn her, afraid the ash might fall into her lap, and she would burn herself. “And there’d better not be another goddamn hailstorm!” Papa slammed his angry fist onto the table, and the cups and plates danced a little. Maman flinched; her eyes looked frightened as she cowered closer to her side of the narrow kitchen, and I pushed myself deeper into the tight space between the cupboard and the stove.
With each slurp of sweetened citrus, it feels as though the bursting flavour creeps up my nose and then back down my throat to forge furrows through dust dunes piled high. The soda pop is a prize awarded for days of rock picking in the fields.
For at least a week we crouched low to the earth, bent like the scrub brush, fighting to stay vertical in a relentless wind, tossing rock after rock into the box of our rusted-out pick-up truck. Maman had coaxed my brother, Lynn, to stop throwing the rocks out of the truck.
“You said five more!” he screamed back at her. His red hair, matted with dirt, stood up in a mass of stiff snarls. The freckles glowed almost greenish on the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks and forehead.
Maman sighed and rolled her shoulders a few times. “Okay.” She tried to reason with him, her eyes downcast. “This time, I really promise, but we need to finish, or Papa will be very upset.” Did I imagine a shadow passing over her face? I looked up to the sky, but there was nothing but a glaring sun in a cerulean sky. “Maybe I’ll get you and Rachel your own bottles. I’ll share one with the little ones,” Maman negotiated.
The mention of Papa’s name was enough to silence Lynn. He hopped down from the box, and we kept filling the back until Maman signalled we’d done enough. We drove to the rock pile, Lynn and I each sitting on a wheel hub in the back, and unloaded. The sun beat down on my back, on my dark hair. Then we all piled into the cab of the truck, and Maman took us all the way to the tiny store in town.
On the way home, the wind blew through the open windows of the cab and we held the cold bottles to our blazing cheeks, anticipating the moment when Maman would fetch the bottle opener and pry off the metal caps. Lynn and I would make sure to catch them as they fell to the concrete pad in the shade of the elm trees.
We’ve started a bottle cap collection, but we don’t have very many, mostly just Papa’s beer caps we pluck from under the couch in the mornings when we stealthily creep about until he disappears to the fields.
As I run my fingers over the scarred bark of the trunk I’m leaning against, I imagine I’d be happy never to see another rock again. I lean against the wide trunk and squish my bare feet into cool leaf mulch that’s accumulated beneath the trees over the years. I do not realize it, but one day I will yearn to see the rock piles dotting our fields. I will crave the reward of hurling one rock from the top of the pile onto another, far below. I will mentally wait for the crack that neatly splits the rock in two, revealing jewelled worlds within.
As we sip orange soda in the heavenly shade, we are satisfied. This afternoon, there is neither heat baking our backs nor wind whipping through our hair. The orange soda is rare, and today, for the first time in our lives, Lynn and I have our own glass bottles to drink from. I tilt the bottle, swirl down the last swig and wait for the dregs to puddle on my tongue.