Volume 20, Number 117, October/November 2017 WINNER OF THE 2017 FICTION - THE JEANNIE PARSONS PRIZE
by Patricia Kitteringham
The bright northern sunlight slipped through the dark curtains shielding my window and nudged me out of bed. Today’s the day, no time to linger it seemed to say. I leaped up, wide awake. The first day of blueberry season was here at last!
I grabbed my clothes off the floor and scrambled into them, then tiptoed across the room. At the doorway I paused, tilting my head, listening. Nothing but the soft sound of the radio drifting upstairs from the kitchen.
Mindful of my father sleeping downstairs, home from working underground in the Flin Flon mine all night, I slid open the floral curtain that served as my bedroom door and crept across the hall into the boys’ room.
“Pssst! Wake up, Robbie,” I whispered, careful not to disturb our big brother sleeping next to him, who tended to throw shoes at us if we woke him up before noon.
“Uhhhh,” Robbie mumbled, peering at me with sleep-clotted eyes, not moving.
“Get up!” I hissed. “The blueberries are ripe. We need to get going before the other kids get all the best spots.”
“Blueberries!” A smile as bright as the summer sun swept across his face as he rolled out of bed into a heap on the floor.
“1’ll go get breakfast,” I said, then turned and hurried downstairs to the kitchen.
A careful look through the window over the sink showed a few clouds in the mid-August sky, but no serious threat of rain. Perfect blueberry picking weather!
And time for our annual contest to see who could pick the most berries.
A minute later Robbie thumpthump-thumped all the way down the stairs to the kitchen, skipping every second step, his clothes clumped under one arm.
Mum glared at him for making too much noise, then added more wood to the cookstove to build up the fire, it being Wednesday, the day she baked bread for the week.
Frowning, I looked up from the loaf I was slicing for toast. “If you don’t hurry up and get dressed, I’ll leave without you and get a head start.” Not that I would ever have done that. Robbie was my best buddy and we were inseparable. In the winter, in our matching parkas trimmed with wolf fur, people thought we were twins.
“Okay. But just because you’re bigger doesn’t mean you can boss me around. I’m going to be seven next month.” He puffed up his chest as he started to dress.
Ignoring him, I turned back towards the counter, plugged in the toaster, lowered its sides and started to load the bread. It wouldn’t fit. Too thick. I squashed the slices in and raised the doors. Down they fell. Grimacing, I grabbed the knobs and stood there holding the doors up, the bread as close to the heating elements as I could push it.
“And you can’t leave without me. You’re not allowed to go alone. Muuum ...”
A clean white tea towel now pinned over her flaming red hair, Mum glanced up from setting a bowl of yeast and sugar water to rise on the stove’s warming shelf, then ignored us. Smelling smoke, I hastily dropped the toaster doors. The bread was a bit black, but not too bad. I pried it out, turned it over and jammed it back in so I could toast the other side.
“I’m going to get the most berries, anyway,” I said. “You don’t stand a chance.”
“Ha. Who picked the most last summer?” Robbie stabbed a finger at his chest. “Me, that’s who.”
“Luck, that’s all it was.”
“You’re just jealous ‘cause I’m a better picker. And I’m going to beat you this year too.”
What a bragger he was.
“We’ll see about that,” I snorted.
The toast done, I scraped off most of the burnt parts and loaded it with butter and honey. I handed the worst slice to Robbie.
“Enough squabbling, you two. Out of my kitchen.” Mum poured the bowl of foaming yeast into the pool of warm milk and lard in her huge blue and white speckled enamel bread pan. Its rich aroma filled the room.
Dripping honey on the floor, I scurried out of the kitchen through the wide-arched doorway into the dinette, Robbie hot on my heels. We bolted down our toast and peeked into the kitchen, eyeing the bread pan. Visions of deep fried dough dredged in sugar filled my mind. “Can we have doughies for dinner?”
“Doughies?” A smile tugged the edges of Mum’s lips. “Maybe. I’ll have to see how many nice, juicy berries you get for pies this winter.”
I grinned at Robbie. Robbie grinned at me. Doughies for dinner! We grabbed our tin berry pails and headed for the door, our bare feet flying.
“And make lots of noise in the bush to scare any bears away like Dad told you.”
“Aw, Mum,” I groaned. “We play in the bush near Key Lake all the time and I’ve never seen a single bear.”
Robbie piped up, “Yeah, but Dad says they’re around now that the blueberries are ready. And I don’t want a bear to eat me.”
“Now, Robbie, no bear’s going to eat you,” Mum said. “Just make lots of noise. And if you see one, back up slowly, no running.”
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll make lots of noise and won’t run. Can we go now?”
“And stay away from the lake.”
We were always under strict orders not to go near the lake. So, of course, we played in it every chance we got. “Yes Mum.”
With that, I tore out the door, Robbie right behind me.
I led the way across the street and over a huge rock that looked like a giant’s pillow. Down the other side we dove into the dense bush, where a narrow path wove through a tangle of black spruce and poplars. Underfoot the ground was soft and moist, muffling the noise of our footsteps, and the air drenched with the smell of pine and rotted leaves. The only sounds were the occasional soft clucking of a spruce hen and the rasping click of a ptarmigan.
We soon reached the first of a scattering of massive rocks that drifted through the dense bush, like a trail of crumbs dropped by some prehistoric giant to guide us on our way. Up we clambered until we came to the sunny pockets clustered on its top where thin layers of soil had built up in shallow hollows. Here we found the scattered clumps of stunted blueberry bushes that grudgingly yielded up their treasure.
Excited, we squatted down and pulled the small tart berries off the plants by the handful and crammed them into our mouths. By late morning we’d picked the bushes clean. Hot and tired, I looked at Robbie and turned towards the lake.
Without a word, Robbie followed me down the steep rock face and along the dirt path. We soon came to the shoreline where a pair of loons called out their unhappiness about our invasion of their territory.
Standing on a low-lying rock bordering the lake, I studied its murky waters. Our big brother had warned us that it was bottomless and that anything that fell into it kept on sinking forever. Visions of falling through its dark, endless depths flashed through my mind. Would I sink all the way from Saskatchewan to the other side of the world? All the way to China?
“I’m tired,” Robbie whined from the other side of the rock where he was puddling about in the water with a stick. “Let’s go home. I want some doughies.”
And off we went, our mouths watering at the thought of the sweet treat.
Back home our mother, the official scorekeeper for our contest, inspected our pails. “Looks like it’s a tie, today,” she smiled, pretending not to notice our blue lips.
After stuffing ourselves with doughies, Robbie and I played war with our younger brother, building forts and teepee villages populated by armies of stick warriors. When we were done we had them wage hellish battles where everyone was killed except the heroes of the day, our own characters. No women survived, except me of course.
Later in the afternoon our father woke up and came out into the yard, calling out in his booming voice, “I don’t suppose anyone wants to go to the store for a sucker?”
“Suckers!” we shrieked and every kid within hearing distance converged on our yard. We piled into the wooden box of our ancient pickup truck, lowering our bums carefully to avoid splinters, for the five minute ride. At the store, Dad bought each of us a one-cent sucker in the flavour of our choice and we headed home, licking slowly to make it last.
At bedtime that night Dad read our favourite Buster Bear story in a deep, grumbly-rumbly voice punctuated with ferocious growls. Greedy Buster had stolen Farmer Brown’s son’s pail full of blueberries and got it stuck on his head. I sighed with relief when the friendly little bear managed to get it off.
The next morning, eager for the challenge of another day, I dressed and hurried downstairs. Robbie had beaten me and was busy burning the toast. He looked serious, but I wasn’t worried. Today I had a plan. No more snacking, just pick, pick, pick, like crazy. I was definitely going to win the contest this year.
After gobbling down our toast, we grabbed a handful of long spirals of apple peel - Mum was making apple pies - and stuffed them into our mouths.
“Try not to get so many green berries today,” she said. “Slow down. The berries aren’t going to run away. And remember about the bears.”
“Sure, Mum,” I said. Waste of time, I thought.
Robbie looked at me guiltily. He’d completely forgotten to make any noise yesterday.
Today, he grabbed a stick almost as tall as he was as soon as we entered the bush and started whacking every tree in sight along the soft forest path. With all the noise he was making, the bears probably thought an army was coming. And I couldn’t hear a single bird or animal - he’d scared away all the wildlife for miles.
“Just making sure,” Robbie said as we walked. “You know, Dad says the bears need the berries to fatten up for winter, before they hibernate.”
“Yes, Robbie. I know.” It was hard being an older sister. “But I don’t think Dad’s right. I’ve never seen a single bear around here.”
“There could be some, though. Maybe we just didn’t see them. Dad knows about stuff.”
Dad didn’t play in the bush every day, I thought. But I didn’t say anything. Robbie was just a little kid. He still thought Mum and Dad knew everything.
By the end of the day, my plan seemed to be working. I was ahead of Robbie by a good half cup. But the next day Robbie surged ahead and we went along like that - one day I’d be ahead, the next him, neither of us able to get a strong lead.
The end of berry season was fast approaching and I was getting more and more worried. I couldn’t let Robbie win two years in a row. I just couldn’t. I’d have to listen to his bragging for another whole year.
Then, one morning I woke up and saw that the frost had visited the tiny flower garden my father had dug for me in the spring. My bright pink cosmos and blue bachelor buttons were black and shrivelled. The end of blueberry season had arrived.
Today it was do or die.
We gobbled down our breakfast and shot out the door.
Over the chain of rocks we trotted in the crisp morning air. Robbie squeezed ahead of me, hoping to get first crack at the few remaining berries. Up the rocks we flew, each scrambling for the bluest looking bushes.
Oomph! I crashed right into Robbie as he came to a sudden stop at the top of a rock.
“What are you doing?” I said. “You’re in my way.”
There was no reply.
I looked over his shoulders. There, not fifty feet away, were two bear cubs. They were stuffing berries, stems and all, into their mouths.
The cubs, berry juice running down their faces, looked up and saw Robbie. They froze. Where was the mother’? I scanned the landscape without spotting her. Not behind us, I hoped.
The cub closest to us squealed in distress, looked at Robbie again, then took off in the opposite direction.
I still couldn’t see the mother.
Suddenly there she was! She was big. She was black. And she was a blur, she was moving so fast. Looking for her cubs, she galloped up the far side of the rock, coming for her babies. Coming right towards us.
She hadn’t seen us. Yet.
The first cub shot towards her. She stopped and stood up on her hind legs, looking for the second cub. Huffing her concern, she scanned the area for danger. The second cub scuttled towards her.
Robbie made a move to dart down the side of the rock.
Dropping my pail, I grabbed his shoulders with both hands and pulled him firmly against me. “Don’t run,” I whispered. “Don’t make any noise.”
“Walk,” I said. “Backwards. Slowly. I’m right behind you.”
I pulled him down the rock face and out of the bear’s line of vision. We backed down in lockstep, me holding Robbie against my body to keep him steady, until we were about twenty feet down the trail.
“Okay,” I said. “Run.” And we crashed down the path, jumping over tree roots and slamming through the sharp spruce branches that reached out for us.
A long way down the trail, we stopped and collapsed on a rock, gasping.
“I guess Dad was right about the bears,” I said in a small voice.
Robbie nodded. “Yeah. He’s pretty smart.”
I looked around for my berry pail.
“Too bad you dropped your pail,” Robbie said, grinning at me and holding up his half-full bucket. “Looks like I won the contest again this year.”