by E. D. Morin
Poppy lies face down on her towel, the ties of her bikini top pooled in two coils at her sides. The gentle pitch of the water and the warmth of the sun on her back have a lulling effect; she barely hears her name being called.
“Poppy, watch your sister.” She opens one eye and squints sideways into the bright sunlight to where Cali kneels at the raft edge. Half sister, she corrects silently. The toddler reaches over the edge, the skin of her legs red from the artificial turf of the raft, reaches for the ball that dips and rises on the surface. Her fingers just brush it, send it skittering toward the dark blue midpoint of the lake.
“I’ll get it”, Poppy says. She reattaches her bikini top and dives into the water, resurfacing near the ball. “Jump in, I’ll catch you.” Poppy treads water with arms extended while Cali leaps into the water.
Miriam greets them onshore. “You shouldn’t fall asleep on the raft”, she tells Poppy. “It’s not safe.” Safe for who, Poppy wonders, swaddling a shivering Cali in one of the cabin’s tattered beach towels. “My toes are blue!” Cali cries, peering down at her feet curiously.
A rhythmic tapping echoes down the path from the cabin. Poppy is suddenly exasperated by the sound of hammering. This is their summer at Miriam’s cabin in Jasper, the promised family vacation. Yet Bertrand has driven back to Edmonton twice in the last month, to deal with urgencies at the greenhouse. At the lake, he works steadily on the old roof replacing worn shingles, or takes walks with Miriam on the path that skirts the lakeshore.
Perhaps, after all, this is the unspoken plan: Bertrand and Miriam tending to their affairs while Poppy cares for Cali, their lovechild whose reckless namesake is Calendula. Bursting, sunshiny Calendula. Poppy herself was named, so the story goes, after her own mother’s lips and the crimson fields near Arles, named by Bertrand, the corny old horticulturalist.
Miriam’s affairs involve a series of bowed ceramic maps she’s completing in the lakeside studio, Cry Me a River Topographies, they’re entitled. Each map is formed with thousands of tiny clay babies. Poppy is disturbed by Miriam’s open-mouthed babies: river babies, shale babies, grassland babies. They began to appear after the birth of Cali, Miriam claiming the small, quickly cast clay figures were born of necessity.
A short distance from the beach, Miriam and the girls pause at a small clearing, shaded beneath ancient Douglas fir. Poppy returns her gaze to the lake. She closes her eyes and experiences again the swaying raft. Miriam says, “Look Cali, it’s the old model railroad, the one I told you about. There’s not much left.” Poppy turns back to examine the clearing, but there’s only a root strewn path through a rolling carpet of moss and pine needles. She kicks at the hard dirt with her sneaker.
“That’s the last bit of rail.” Miriam points to a junction where two short rails criss-cross on a slab of old concrete. Miriam flutters one hand. “Anyway, I just remembered why I came down, Poppy. Your father wants you to pick some onions for supper. I have one more batch of blue babies to finish.”
In the meadow, Poppy gathers a handful of slender green stalks, careful not to break the bulbs. Cali digs up a wild onion and bites the end, spits the sharpness off her tongue noisily. Falling down on a blanket of alpine grass, purple lupine and harebells, fleabane and coneflower, they weave daisy chains from wildflowers. Poppy loops hers over Cali, refastens the towel like a robe. Her little sister rotates majestically, then faster, flings her arms, her towel, and collapses on the ground, laughing hysterically. Red runners lead them to soft red-brown leaves, hiding miniature strawberries they pop in their mouths, savouring the impossible sweet taste.
The night before, Poppy lay in bed listening to twilight sounds, a feverish glow on her skin. It was unsettling the way daylight lingered here, hanging on by its fingertips, the way the mountains seemed to unfold without end. In the city she was confined to boxes: classrooms, cars, buses, her room at home. For the first time this summer, an ache in her chest, she missed her friends, her mother. She drifted off finally, soothed by the night train that lumbered across the lake.
Returning from the meadow, they stop at the model railroad clearing. Poppy stares at a mound of earth, and studies the contours of land to the rail junction. In a flash, the outline of the railroad emerges, carving a circuit through the clearing. The shadow of rail-line, a tunnel burrowing into the tiny mountainside and farther on, another concrete slab, another junction? Cali scrambles up the earth mound, stands up, and begins pounding her feet. “No Cali, it’ll cave in!” Poppy is surprised by her own sudden passion.
When they reach the cabin, Bertrand comes down from the roof, his fingers black from the roof tiles. “The south side is almost done”, he says. “I had a hell of a time with the flashing. I see you got the onions, great.” He nods at Poppy, kisses Cali on the head.
After dinner Bertrand and Miriam depart for an evening walk. Cali leads Poppy around the woodpile to the tree-swing. “Push me”, Cali cries. “Push me, push me”, she repeats, insistent. Poppy grabs a section of gnarled bark from the ground and leans back against the tree, carving bits off with her fingernails. She thinks about Bertrand and Miriam and her mother, the cruelty of two more years in high school, an eternity in captivity. A rush of longing seizes her; the evening air caresses her skin.
“Push meyeeyee!” Cali clutches the ropes, her short legs flapping.
Poppy brushes the bark from her hands. “Hang tight, okay? Don’t blow a gasket.” This is something Bertrand says. She isn’t sure what a gasket is, something to do with water pumps and engines, the humid greenhouse. Poppy hauls the swing back, then lets go with a thrust, pushing until Cali soars through the arc of the swing.
Later, Poppy tucks Cali into bed too early, and the sun bursts crimson across the lake. Poppy sprints down the path to the beach, bare soles on pebbles that have been coaxed and pulverized into smoothness. She dives in and swims out. On the raft Poppy lies on her back and gazes at the mountains, layers of sheared rock thrust upward, overzealous. The earth spins too fast, and she closes her eyes.
The next morning, when her father burns the twisting road into town, she hugs her shoulder bag to her chest, vision blurred. Her suitcase is in the back. At the bus station in town, the dry heat reminds her of the city, but she won’t change her mind, no repenting the disruption of Miriam’s plans, cry me a river. But Cali.
Cali, leaving her bed the evening before, following her down the path, the coyote emerging from the trees, circling, Cali screaming.
“What were you thinking?” Miriam yelled. “The neighbour’s dog was carried off by a coyote last summer.”
“She’s okay. Nothing happened.” Poppy snapped back. “I’m tired of being your slave.”
What she will miss. The smoothed stones and the old railroad, mysteries unfolded by the earth; the smell of pine needles, of onions and strawberries; and the brisk shock of clear glacial water.
This story was produced for and aired on CBC Radio’s “Alberta Anthology” and published in CBC Alberta Anthology, Red Deer Press, 2005.
Copyright © E. D. Morin, 2005