We didn’t know what that meant – the future.
Every time you said that word, we thought of rocket ships and flying cars. Living on Mars, that’s what we thought of.
I guess you meant our future. You said that a few times, too. You meant what things would be like in a couple of years and everything that would happen after that. But the years were long and the summer days were longer.
Our toy chest smelled of cedar. It was a padded, black and white chest; our Legos and old wooden toys inside – tractors and horses mostly – sat tucked away under a spiral staircase with handrails welded by our grandpa and thick brown carpet on the steps.
On the other side of the room, in an alcove with a big desk and legal pads, were books: shelves and shelves of books. We loved the smell of those books more than we loved the smell of the toy chest. They smelled like freshly threshed wheat, like almonds, and those candles you put on the dinner table. We’d pick them up and look at the gold lettering on the sides, read the title, and flip through the pages, put one back, and grab another.
There were books on wars and animals, cooking and gods. The shelves were so tall and we were so small. We reached up on our tippy toes to look at the covers, and we measured our heights by the books we could reach. We tried to climb the shelves once, but you caught us. You said it wasn’t safe. There was one book lying on its side on the very top shelf; we just wanted to know what it was.
We usually ended up in the garden, playing with the hose. We’d turn on the spigot, stare down the cold metal ring at the end, and watch for the water to come out. The water would gargle and then gush out, getting us right in the face.
We made rivers and waterfalls. It was to help water the garden, we said. You’d sigh, and we’d smile, and you’d tell us not to have too much fun. Our rivers navigated the garden from one gate to the other. Through the rows and rows of carrots, beans, potatoes, spinach, peas, tomatoes, cabbage, and rutabagas. We never knew what those were, rutabagas, but we loved the way that you said that word. Rutabaga. It made us giggle. We would help you make dinner with vegetables right out of the dirt. Carrots always tasted best with a bit of dirt still on them.
Every summer day was filled with playing in the mud, reaching for the book on the top shelf, making dinner, and lying in the grass as the sun set. Those summer evenings, with the sun setting over the hill, orange on one end of the sky, but still blue on the other, the grass chilly, but the air warm and still.
We told you that it would be nice to have a milk cow, but you said that was too much work. You settled for getting us chicks. They were so small and soft, and we held them cupped in our hands. They cheeped as we got them fresh water and poured out food. We helped you build their coop for when they grew up, and then we gathered the eggs every day. The eggs were warm, and the shells were smooth like silt. They were fragile too, but sometimes we’d forget.
We felt pretty grown up the first time you let us light the fireworks. We sprayed water all over the dirt with the hose. It was to show you how safe we were being and convince you that we could use a lighter instead of those punks that barely kept an ember going. We grabbed a big board, propped it up with a couple of 2x4s, and set up our firework podium there in the middle of the mud. The podium was that piece of metal we pulled off the old swather and the board was our backstage shelter. That way, we could make a show of it and see you smile when the colors lit up in the darkness.
There was that summer that you took us out picking chokecherries. We were hoping for one bucket full, enough to make some syrup for our French toast. We found a tall tree by the creek with chokecherries hanging down all around it, like little bunches of grapes. When they got too tall for us to reach, we hung off the branches to snag just a few more. We came back with five and a half buckets full. We made jams and syrups and pies. Our mouths were stained purple for weeks.
You taught us how to shoot a .22, we drew our own targets and made a game of it. Then we shot dried up marshmallows that exploded if you hit them just right. You said we could go out into the field and shoot gophers by ourselves. The doors of the pickup creaked as we pulled them shut. Driving off, the dust billowed up behind us, and the wheels bumped over the rows in the field. We stopped just above the draw with the old machinery.
From the back of the pickup, we scoped out gophers, our legs dangling over the tailgate. Squeezing the trigger and looking over the gun, we squinted our eyes. We kept a tally so that we could brag to you when we got back. We killed seventeen that day. They were pests, anyway.
We worked in the garden, picking the peas and the beans and tomatoes, digging up the potatoes and rutabagas and whatever else was in there. The tops of our ears and noses got red and our shorts stuck to our legs. We wiped the sweat off our foreheads, trudged to the upper gate, grabbed the hose, and pointed it at the ground to turn on the spigot. A fine mist of water came from a crack in the side of the hose. The mist gave us goosebumps, and our shoulders shimmered in the heat of the sun.
We gulped water out of that hose, catching it midair in our mouths and splashing most of it back out. The water cooled the tips of our toes and pooled, soaking into the ground. We went back to picking the peas and the beans and the tomatoes in the sun-dried dirt. Going inside for iced tea, we were hoping you would be making brownies, but you said that it heated up the house too much. We settled for apples. It was still too hot outside, so we went downstairs and looked through the books. Books about flying and state laws, geology, and gods.
We only had so many summers with you before we moved out. Off to work or college or wherever. We’d come back some summers here and there, but only a few days at a time. The garden would be just sprouting, or it would be harvested already. You’d turn on the sprinkler and we’d sit on the porch. The sky turned from blue to orange to grey and soon to black.
Once a year, we went to watch a firework show. We’d bring a blanket and jackets, and we would smile as the colors lit up the sky. We watched the finale from over our shoulders and listened to the music fade as we walked to the car to beat the traffic. We went home and ate store-bought pie.
We had kids, eventually, and we told them about the past. They didn’t know what that meant. They thought of oil lamps and homesteads.
Horse-drawn buggies. That’s what they thought of.
You were worried that you weren’t important to us anymore. We assured you that you were and we’d show it by complimenting the tomatoes and the peas and the beans and the rutabagas. You wanted us to visit more, and we said that we’d love to. So, we did. A few more times a year at least, mostly in the summer.
Our kids were small and the garden was so big. They’d shriek and laugh because the water from the hose was so cold and because they could stir up some mud, rub it on their arms, and call it sunscreen. They would run through the garden and dig holes for nothing, they’d water the plants by making rivers and waterfalls that weaved through all the rows, and they’d pick tomatoes that weren’t yet ripe.
They dug through that chest that smelled of cedar and played with the toy tractors and horses. They played with the Legos, and they gazed up at the shelves and shelves of books about wars and animals, cooking, and gods. They wanted to know what that book was, the one on the top shelf.
We watched from the back porch, we watched as the sun set and the colors were so quickly gone, but the children lay in the grass, wiggling their little ankles back and forth, the mud dried and flaking off. They’d lay out there, getting goosebumps from the cool grass and waiting for the stars to come out.
That summer you died, we walked through your garden. The tomatoes were ready to be picked and the tops of the potatoes were beginning to bloom, needing to be dug up. The carrots were seeding, and the spinach leaves were large and bitter. The rutabagas, we didn’t know if they were ready, but we dug them up anyway.
The kids sat on the porch with us and watched the sky. They went inside and grabbed that tattered red blanket you had and laid it down in the grass. We all lay down there, with the cool grass tickling our ankles, and the air warm and still.
We all watched the sky. It was orange on one end but still blue on the other. Orange faded into a light pink and, eventually, deepened into red. Red faded to grey and soon to black, and we waited for the stars.
Koryn Rae Haight (Rae) lives her life in pursuit of truths and believes there is no truth to be found, only truth to be spoken. She first loved poetry and writes lyric essays. Rae grew up under the Montana mountains and is a graduate student in the MA Psychology Program at San Diego State University. She lives on the road in a campervan she converted with her fiancée, Jordan. Know her better at rae.wiki.