About me and this blog

I was born on a native reserve in Ontario, grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island (as far west as you can go without running out of Canada), came of age in Mexico City. Between times, I lived in the Fraser Valley, Texas, Seattle, Oklahoma, Bella Coola, on the BC north coast, and the Fraser River Delta, just south of Vancouver. For now, I'm "settled" in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island.

I have a boatload of stories to tell. These are some of them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cow's Tail


"'Who will help me knead the bread?' said the Little Red Hen.
'Not I,' said the Cow.
'Not I,' said the Duck.
'Not I,' said the Frog."

I yawned and turned the page, although I already knew what came next; "'Then I will knead it all by myself,' said the Little Red Hen."

"Knead" was a funny word. The "k" didn't say anything; you pronounced it "need". As in, "I need some new books." But I couldn't have any; I was being punished.

I had stolen four dollars from Mom's purse and walked down to the company store when I was supposed to be playing in the back yard. There was a book in the window, a big one; "Mother Goose Stories and Poems". I had seen it when I went with Mom to get canned milk and stuff. The price was on the cover - only one dollar! But Mom wouldn't buy it for me.

The man at the store had wanted to know why I was there by myself, but I had my answer ready. It was Mom's birthday, I told him. I looked around and found a flowery cup and saucer, under three dollars. "That," I said. "Mom will like that." He took it off the shelf and wrapped it for me. I counted out the three dollars, then looked at my change.

"I still have a dollar," I said. "Can I have that book, too?"

I shouldn't have given the cup to Mom on her birthday. As soon as she unwrapped it, she frowned. "Where did you get the money for this?" she asked. No thanks, no smiles, just questions and more questions until I had to confess.

I got the belt for that. Worse, I had to take the cup and the book back to the store and tell the man I lied. And I didn't have time to read more than a few of the stories in the book!

It was a good thing, as Mom and Dad said, that my birthday was in the summer. I could go to school as soon as I was six, and not have to wait until next year like the kids who had their birthdays after Christmas. There would be books to read at school. But until then, I would have to make do with what I had. I wouldn't even get a book for my birthday.

So I read "The Little Red Hen" again. And "The Sky is Falling!" with Chicken Little and all the farmyard creatures. And the oatmeal box, even the French part. And sometimes my Bible, the one with the pictures in it; Moses in the Bulrushes, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Jesus Knocking at the Door. It was hard to read, though, almost as hard as French. The stories made more sense the way they told them in Sunday School.

September came, finally. School. Two rooms, one for grades one to three, one for the big kids. My room had small desks, all lined up in rows, and a blackboard with the letters of the alphabet printed at the top. At the side, under the window, there was a two-shelf bookcase, half-full of books. When I looked closer, I saw that most of them were the same one, over and over; "Dick and Jane". But there were a few different ones. I wanted to start reading them right away.

There were rules. The teacher spent most of the first morning telling us about them. We had to sit quietly in our desks. No talking. No whispering. No looking around. No getting up from the desks without permission from the teacher. No reading, except at lunch hour. Except for the textbooks, of course, but only when we were told to. "Dick and Jane" was one of the textbooks, and we got to take it home, so I read it all the first week. The teacher moved me up to Grade Two.

At lunch hour, the other kids ate quickly and ran out to play. I sat alone in the warmth and the quiet, reading. I didn't mind not being out in the rain with the others; I was never any good at their games, anyway. I got tired too easily. Playing tag, I was always "it", and never managed to tag anybody until they got bored and waited for me. Reading was better.

All the books on the shelf were easy; baby books. There was even another copy of "The Little Red Hen". I read the rest over a few lunches, then the Grade Three textbook. The arithmetic books had story problems; I read those, too, when the teacher wasn't looking. We weren't supposed to read ahead, she said. Another rule.

That was it. There was nothing more to read. And I had to read the textbook along with my grade, with the book open to the right page, following along as the other kids struggled to read in their turn. "Dick and Jane are go-ing to the farm. They are go-ing to vi-sit Gra-nd-father and Grand-mother."

Outside our windows, the sunshine faded. It was going to rain again; the seagulls were flying high, soaring along almost without moving their wings. I wondered what it felt like to be up there in the wind and the quiet.

"Susie! Stop daydreaming! Pay attention!"

I looked back at my book. The girl in front of me was stumbling over an easy word. Jane was feeding the chickens. Always chickens!

At the end of the blackboard behind the teacher's desk, there was a connecting door from our classroom to the next. It was usually closed. One morning our teacher ran out of chalk and went next door to borrow some. She left the door open -- "Don't talk, children. I will hear you." -- and I had a good view of the window wall. There were two bookcases, crammed full of books!

I was careful not to let my attention wander for the rest of the morning; I didn't want the teacher mad at me. At lunch time, I stood quietly by her desk until she gave me permission to speak. "Miss Hansen, may I go next door and borrow a book to read?" I remembered to say "please", too.

I expected a bored "Okay", plus a few more rules to remember. I got two; I was not allowed in the next room. And I was not allowed to read those books; they were for Grade Four and up.

Wishing doesn't make things happen. You have to act if you want results; so they told me. But I did nothing to get at those books, I swear it. I did sit staring at that shut door as if my eyes could burn a hole through it, as if I could really see those forbidden books just beyond. What magical stories did they hold? What singing poems? What new riddles? I got in trouble for daydreaming again; I didn't care.

One Saturday morning just after the first frost, a man came running up our hill, shouting for Dad. The school was on fire!  Behind him, smoke billowed up, a darker grey than the drizzly sky.

Everyone went to help; our family from the top of the hill, mill-workers and their wives from the river road, men down from the bunkhouses on the mountain-side. Someone got the fire hose unrolled and hooked it up. They took it around the back, where the chimney was. In front, men were bringing the desks and tables to the school door; women piled them higgledy-piggledy in the yard. We kids hung around, as close as we dared, getting yelled at when we got underfoot.

Someone came out of the school carrying a pile of books and dumped them on a handy table. More books followed, armloads of books, whole boxes of books! When the school was empty, everyone went around back where the fire was. I could hear it crackling back there, but I ignored it and went over to investigate the stacks of books. I found one that looked interesting, grabbed a chair and sat down to read, my back to the empty school.

It was a story about a mouse who couldn't run as fast as the other mice. He was always last in every race. He was always late to dinner. The other mice called him "Cow's Tail". In the end, of course, he proved to be smarter than the others, and they were sorry they had laughed at him.

The fire was getting bigger. The roof of the school caved in. I chose another book. And another.

Everyone came back to move the desks farther away from the building. They shooed me away; I grabbed another book and sat on a rock across the road, reading.

The school burned down. The teacher left town. We held classes after that in the church, with Mom as the teacher. I got to read anything I wanted.

Wishing didn't make it so. I swear it. It just happened.



Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Monday, July 19, 2010

Three dreams: Dream Three



Josephine's

It had been a grey day. The snow had melted into mud, but the trees were still bare sticks, with no promise of spring colour about them. All day it had been just about to rain, but never actually wet. 

In the inlet, the wind whipped the waves up into froth and stole the breath from our lips. The float plane tied by the wharf bucked and bobbed and yanked at its ropes. It was not flying weather, yet the pilot was waiting for us to board and "they" were hurrying us along. 

I hung back; I had worked long hours that day, and the kids were waiting for me at home. I had no reason to fly. "They" said I should. I gave up and scrambled across the skittery pontoon. Sooner done, soonest over.

The plane took off quickly, nosed up towards the first mountain, then tipped forwards and dove into the water. I had a window seat; I saw the top of the waves, the froth and the grey water. They slid up and away, and the light was shut out. Tiny bubbles streamed past my window.

Behind me, someone was calling to the pilot. A woman prayed aloud, making promises. The man across the aisle kept repeating, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus..." Someone laughed, a nervous-sounding laugh.

The water at my window turned green and luminous, then it fell away and sunshine blazed. The plane taxied to a stop. The door was opened and we all stepped out, across the pontoon, and into an ankle-deep stream. The water was cold -- glacier runoff, it felt like.

I stopped on the banks and looked around. We were in a green valley, bright and warm. The plane was moored in a shallow, bubbling creek, almost narrow enough to jump over. I needn't have waded, but it didn't matter; the sun was already drying my shoes. Along the banks of the creek, an old road stretched ahead, bordered by a row of poplars on the water side, and a split-rail fence on the other.

The light was everywhere, golden and alive. Even the fence posts seemed to glow with an internal light. The grass was that once-a-year springtime green, the wet rocks in the creek sparkled, the water looked like dancing glass.

Everybody was walking down the road; I joined them. We passed a 1920's car parked on the grass under a poplar. Weeds were growing through the wheel and over the running boards. We walked on. The creek veered away and there were hayfields on both sides.

The kids were laughing and running in the meadows ahead, where the fence had ended. I haven't mentioned the kids earlier; in truth, I hadn't noticed them. But they were all there, my kids and their best friends and the cat. They had found a lamb and were following it up and over the hill.

"Are you going back?" one of the men asked me.

I looked at the kids. "No", I said.

"Me, neither," he said, and his wife nodded.

We came to a barn and went in. It was so neat it looked like a stage-set; pitchforks hung on one wall, clean straw covered the floor, bins were full of feed. All the wood was silvery-grey from age, but there were no broken boards, no missing shingles. Against the outside wall, fragrant bales of hay were stacked nearly to the eaves. The cat was already half-way to the top; she found a crevice and slipped through. Somehow I knew she was claiming the barn as her home. She would never go back to our cold valley.

The kids were out of sight; we followed a narrow trail through the hayfield up to the top of the hill and found a long-abandoned farmhouse; the door was open and the kid's voices echoed from inside. I was embarrassed by their lack of respect; it wasn't their house, even if no-one lived there any more. We went in after them.

The house had the same odd neatness as the barn; most of the rooms were empty, but the floors were swept clean and the windows polished. In the kitchen, a shining white cookstove stood alone; my grandmother's chair was in the dining room on a circular rag rug. The house was ours to keep, if we wanted to; somehow I knew it.

The kids were laughing upstairs. Just off the landing, there was another open door, leading to a flat deck looking over the valley. We all just stood there for a moment, then, without words, joined hands to form a circle and started to dance. Round and round: I realized I was holding the hand of a woman I had never liked before. No matter. We danced.

The circle was too big. At one point, I looked down and realized that only some of us were on the deck. I was dancing in the air. I woke up.

Months later, walking down a forgotten road in mid-summer, I came upon the house; Josephine's house, my friends called it. It was abandoned, but not empty; the doors were locked.

Stories from Alternate Realities
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Three dreams: Dream Two


I was at a poetry reading in the park. We were using a large wooden platform with a greenish tarp for shelter overhead and behind us. A small audience sat on folding chairs or on the grass.

Others had read; it was my turn.

My poem was long, printed out in irregular stanzas, one per page. Large print, for easy reading without glasses. I began.

I hadn't looked at the poem since I had printed it out, and now, reading it, I was pleased. It was good stuff, if a little obscure.

But wait! I had done a companion piece, hadn't I? Kind of a series of mini-essays, to be read alternately with the stanzas of the poem. I apologized to my audience and stooped down to my black loose-leaf, on the edge of the platform. But the pages were not where I expected them. I leafed through the bound pages, then through the pockets. Twice. Nothing there.

In the other loose-leaf. Of course! "Sorry, everyone. Just a minute," I said. The second binder was down on a chair in the front row; I climbed down and retrieved the essays, took a deep breath.

Back on the platform, the poem had gone missing. I had left it on the stand, now empty. "Did anyone pick up my poem?"

Nobody.

Maybe I had put it in the binder when I was looking for the essays, I thought. Back to the edge of the platform, back to the chair. No poem.

"Sorry for the delay, folks."

I would read the essays, instead; I hoped they would stand alone.

They would, sort of. They were well-written little pieces, only tangentially related to the stanzas of the poem, meanderings about home and memories and life in this crazy world. Gentle and accepting little nuggets, too gentle. The bite would have been in the contrast with the poem. If I could find it.

My audience was drifting off, heading for the hot-dog stand, the other exhibits. Half the chairs were empty. The people who had stayed were probably there out of some sense of loyalty; personal friends, my kids' in-laws from Bella Coola, my grandchildren. I was embarrassed to hold them, but I continued reading; what else could I do?

I needed that poem. And I had some pictures, illustrating the essays; where were they?

"Kids, did any of you see that poem? And some pictures I drew? Big ones?"

While I read, they bustled around, searching. Finally one of the kids came up to the platform with some papers he found in the back of the pickup truck that would carry away the chairs.

"Is this it, Grandma?"

Yes, but it was too late. The in-laws had gone for lunch; there was only one person still seated. My aunt. And she would not approve of the poem.

The kids liked the pictures; they had divided them among themselves. "Can we keep them, Grandma?"
Sure. Why not? What did it matter?

I rescued one drawing, two Mexicans in bright clothes against a blue Mexican sky. Well done, if I said so myself. Worth keeping.

~~~~~~~~~

When I woke up, I could remember everything clearly: the planks on that wooden platform, the disorganized papers in my binder, the feet of the chairs making holes in the lawn, my aunt's dress. My picture, the one I'm keeping. But not the poem. Not a word of the poem.

Stories from Alternate Realities
© Susannah Anderson, 2000

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Three dreams: Dream One

Mom and Dad were on their way through town. They had left the house they were renting, and they were moving. Somewhere; it didn't really matter where. Something would turn up. But they had more stuff than they could take with them. Not a problem; they brought it over to my place; they knew, they said, that I wouldn't mind keeping it for them. It was just a little while, anyhow. A few months, at most, maybe a bit more.

And I said, sure, I could store a few things; just bring them in.

Dad got James to help; Mom sat on my sofa and knitted. They brought in a few cardboard boxes, an old suitcase or two. I stashed them neatly in the laundry room closet, and came out to the living room again. They were carrying in the big things now; bed rails, a mattress, folding chairs. Dad stacked them against the wall behind the dining table.

I went to clear space in the shop, but when I came back, there was stuff leaning against all my walls. Chimney pipes. Odd-shaped sheets of plywood. Copper tubing. Tires. Creosoted lumber, scrounged from someone's garden; the dirt still clinging to the back sides, the sides marking my freshly-painted wall just at eye level.

"Thanks, Sue," Dad said. Mom packed up her knitting and they left. In the driveway, Dad rolled down the car window. "We'll be back for our things as soon as we get settled somewhere," he said. "Bye, now!"

I went into my bedroom -- at least there was no stuff there. Just my things, my photos and baskets and bottles, my collection of mirrors. My clean desk, my dresser with its crisp white dresser scarf. Everything in order; everything carefully co-ordinated to create a soothing haven. I went to bed.

In the morning I woke up mad. How dare they? And why didn't I stop them? Why did I always have to be such a dutiful daughter?

I tried to go back to sleep, to put off facing the lumber defacing my living room walls and staining my carpet, but my eyes kept popping open. Even with the blanket pulled over my head, the sun shone through, turning my crazy quilt into a kaleidoscope. I was forced to get up.

At the door to the living room, I stopped cold, my hands arrested half-way through tying the knot in my bathrobe belt. My walls gleamed. The room was spotless, awaiting company, the way I had left it every night since I moved in. But not last night; surely not last night!

I went to check the laundry room closet; nothing there but detergent and fabric softener. I forgave Mom and Dad. But not myself; dreaming or not, I had done what I would have done.

Stories from Alternate Realities
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bear Bait

Warning: this is a true story, and reality is not always pretty. If you are squeamish, please wait for a happier page.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~



Sancho Panza had fallen on the ice. When the boys went out to get wood for the stove, they found him, his back jammed under the bottom rail of the fence, his hooves kicking fitfully in vain attempts to find solid ground.

Philip brought the news. The girls and I, barely pausing to grab jackets and gloves, raced out to the horse corral. Sancho Panza heard us coming and make a last convulsive effort to rise, then lay still, only his heaving rib cage and rolling eyes showing his agitation.

Pauline knelt by her horse's head and burst into tears. "Mom! He can't get up! He's going to die!"

"No. He'll be fine. We'll get him up," I said. "Don't cry." Easy words. Pauline didn't believe me.

It didn't look good. Under the horse, the ground was frozen hard and covered with several inches of ice. It sloped down towards the fence, and the weight of the horse kept him wedged underneath. We would have to push or pull him up that slope, we being two small teenaged girls, two pre-teen boys, Marcos and myself. Marcos was sixteen.

We couldn't do it. Unless...

"Marcos, do you think we could dig through the ice under him? Maybe tip him a bit so he can get his feet down?"

"I'll try."

We had two shovels. Marcos and James poked at the ice at Sancho's rear, gingerly, chipping off one tiny fragment of ice at a time. The horse lay quietly; he trusted us. I sent Philip and Betty to get hay to spread over the ice around Sancho's hooves. It would freeze there quickly and rough up the surface. It might help.

The boys broke through into dirt. It was harder going; the shovels scraped the cut surface, freeing a spoonful of frozen grit at a time. It seemed to take forever. Pauline was leaning on the fence, still sobbing. She was going to have frost-bitten cheeks.

Sancho Panza shifted suddenly and slid a few inches towards the boys. The fence was no longer touching him, except near the shoulders. James brought a two-by-four and we slid it between the horse and the fence. With three of us pulling on the other end, we managed to shift him a few inches more. Suddenly he lurched, kicked out his legs once, skidded and twisted. His hooves touched the ground, slipped on the ice. We hauled again on the two-by-four and he got his hooves down, rolled away from us, and stood up. Pauline stopped crying.

Sancho Panza stayed away from that fence for the rest of the winter.

~~~~~~~~~~

Sancho Panza. Pauline had named him after Don Quixote's servant. Rocinante would have been more appropriate; Sancho had the cadaverous look of that unhappy steed. He was a quarter-century old, arthritic and cranky. Pauline doted on him.

The previous fall, Pauline had gone riding with a friend. While they saddled up, a bony brown horse came over, looking for a handout. Pauline rubbed his nose and gave him a taste of oats.

"What's his name?" she asked.

"I dunno. He's Grandpa's horse. Bear bait," Shauna said.

"Bear bait? Whaddya mean?"

"He's too old. Grandpa's going to take him up the Atnarko River and use him to attract bears. He's going to get himself a grizzly this year, he says."

The horse had been a trail horse for twenty years, Pauline learned. It was hard work, and he didn't have the stamina any more; he was useless. Nobody was going to give him stall room and hay over the winter. Not without some profit in it.

"But you can't just take him to the bears!"

"Why not?"

"What if I bought him from your grandpa?"

A crazy idea, Shauna thought, but she agreed to talk to her grandfather. And I was persuadable. We had the barn, anyhow; a stall could be built in quite easily. And the corral had a good fence. And hay -- well, it couldn't be too expensive, could it? And the horse deserved a decent retirement; good grass, oats and rest under a shady tree.

Shauna's grandpa only wanted one hundred dollars, and would throw in an old saddle, to boot.

Pauline rode Sancho home after school the very next day. It was his last long haul.

We were complete novices. I had never owned any animal larger than a dog. I had stayed occasionally on farms where there were cows. I never got too close; I was afraid of being trampled on. But I had ridden horses a few times, years back. And we had good books: all the "vet" books by James Herriot, and a feminist back-to-the-landers journal. We would manage.

At the Co-op, we bought a bag of oats and something labelled "horse feed" which had molasses in it. Sancho needed fattening up. I asked around and found that everybody had already laid in their hay for the winter; nobody was selling any more. We scythed off our field by hand and managed to get together two bales.

In a small valley, word travels fast. A few days later, a woman I had never met dropped by my workplace to say that her neighbour had enough hay to tide me over -- if I was careful, and if spring came early. I had to borrow a truck to pick it up. And it was too expensive. Next year we would do better.

The stall Marcos and James made in the barn was perfect; sturdy and roomy and right in the centre away from the drafts, with the rabbits just above and the chickens' nests next door, to take advantage of the heat from the horse. The hay in the loft made the whole barn smell fresh and clean. We filled the rack with fresh hay and a bucket with water, led Sancho in and snicked his gate shut. And I stood in the entry way, listening to contented cluckings and chomping and the rattling of the ball valves in the rabbits' water bottles, feeling like a real farmer.

The first Saturday morning, Pauline saddled the horse and went riding. I stood at the living room window to watch her, a dark-haired slip of a girl in a bright pink sweater sitting on a brown horse, her hair and the horse, equally well-brushed, gleaming in the watery sunlight. She crossed the neighbour's pasture land and disappeared into the trees lining the river. A bit later, I caught a glimpse of her again, racing with the neighbour's horses. Sancho Panza was well in the lead. "See?" I thought, as if Shauna could hear me; "He's not too old, after all!"

The next time I went to the window, Pauline was in the pasture. Walking. Carrying the saddle. What now? I couldn't see the horse anywhere.

She came in soon, dripping wet and covered in slime, tears making clean paths down muddy cheeks.

"What happened? Did he buck you off?" I asked.

"He went to the duck pond and rolled in it! With me on his back! I couldn't stop him! I hate him!" She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

She was more forgiving once she was warm and clean. Maybe she tired him out, she reasoned. Maybe she was expecting too much of him. She wouldn't let him run, next time. And she would keep him on the road, where there were no ponds.

"You've got to teach him who's boss," I told her. Advice I'd picked up from some book, no know-how attached.

And we soon learned who made the decisions; Sancho Panza did. He would walk on the road. Slowly. More slowly. He would not speed up. When he came to the bridge half a mile away, he would stop. Nothing could persuade him to step on the bridge.

But when his head was turned towards home, he ran. As fast as he could, with Pauline dragging at the reins and yelling, "Whoa!" When he got home, he stopped.

He tolerated Pauline on his back, sometimes Philip, who was small. But when we put two visiting cousins on the saddle at once, he immediately ran under the clothesline and knocked them off.

We all took care of him; he would accept food and friendly pats from anyone. But he loved Pauline. And she loved him.

Sancho Panza ate well; I had never realized just how much a horse can eat. I had to find more hay before the spring thaw. And even though we supplemented it with the feed and the oats, he continued to lose weight all winter. Not until the grass grew thick and luscious in his corral did he start to gain. By the end of that summer, he looked beautiful, and I was glad Pauline hadn't called him Rocinante.

But the second winter was hard on him. He lost weight again, stood for hours head down, looking dejected. His bones jutted out where there had been smooth muscle just months before. He shuffled from the barn to the corral and back as if he were towing a loaded skidder.

The vet came, and pronounced him in good health. "He's just old," he said. "And his arthritis bothers him with the cold. Nothing you can do." Nothing but watch him and suffer with him. Spring was coming.

"Soon, Sancho, soon. Just hold on a bit longer."

In the summer, I had a serious talk with Pauline. "Sancho Panza is fine now," I said, "but next winter he'll be miserable again. I don't think he should have to go through that."

"You mean put him down?"

"Better than dying by inches."

The euphemisms we use! Put him down! Like putting down a book that bores you. Putting down your fork after a meal. Nothing to it.

How do you put down a much-loved horse?

As I said, it is a small valley. A man from down-valley, a Finn, turned up on our doorstep. "I hear you want to have your horse shot. I'll do it for you."

There was a catch. He wanted the meat. It seemed awful; to let someone butcher your horse, your pet. But we were farmers; we ate our rabbits and chickens. The previous fall we had butchered a pig and two goats. Just because we didn't eat horsemeat didn't mean...

"Okay. You can have the horsemeat."

But it still seemed iniquitous.

In early November, when the ground was frozen, Anders came to do the job. He climbed up into the empty hayloft with his gun, and the boys brought the horse around underneath. (The girls and I were in the house, pretending to be busy.) Anders called, Sancho Panza looked up, and Anders shot him through the forehead. One shot. I heard it as I scrubbed at a polished stove in the kitchen. One. No second shot. So it had been clean, then. At least that was a relief.

They threw Sancho's rope over a beam, and dragged him up until his rear hooves cleared the ground, then gutted and skinned him. He would have to hang for a week, Anders said; he would come back then to butcher him and take him away. The boys dragged the skin and guts down to the farthest corner of the garden and buried them.

I didn't go out to the barn for weeks.

~~~~~~~~~~

One last thing. Anders never came back. Two weeks later, when we enquired, we found he had left town.

The horse was turning green. Somehow, I never asked how, the boys lowered the carcass, and dragged it the half mile to the river, where they threw it in for the bears.

A few days later, a neighbour who kept his floatplane at a dock on the river found a slimy skinned carcass caught between the pontoons. We heard about it eventually, as we heard all the valley gossip. We feigned innocence.

Stories of Bella Coola
© Susannah Anderson, 2000



Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dressing for Don Pedro, Part II

(continued from Part I)

And so the battle lines were drawn, so long ago, it seemed to Lupe now, standing between her weeping aunts, as the padre intoned Latin - Rest in Peace, Lupe translated. Peace! Nana had found it now, after all those months of watchfulness; Aunt Dora and Aunt Mercy, each trying to outmaneuver the other, Aunt Mercy fawning, honey-tongued; Aunt Dora too proud to stoop to flattery, but newly showing a dutiful respect, a daughterly attention to Nana's needs; soups and atoles, clean laundry and warm blankets for her knees, a caring belied by the unveiled hate in her eyes when she thought herself unobserved.

But Lupe had seen, and most devotedly guarded her Nana; first up in the morning, tapping at Nana's door, hearing her ragged breathing falter, strengthen, become a voice - "Yes?" - entering the darkened room full of the heavy odors of sleep and spikenard, and drawing back the curtains to flood the face on the pillow with sunlight, to see the faded brown eyes, awake and smiling: everything is all right. Early home from school, dashing breathless up the stairs and into that open door, patient through the long, slow afternoons with embroidery and school books, the drowsy evenings, before the final kiss on Nana's forehead, scanty hair tumbling over the pillow, teeth in the glass beside the bed.

"Night, Nana."

"Night, child."

Nana was finishing her pillow, filling in the last green petal with a tidy satin stitch, when Lupe pushed aside her Physics textbook, her assignment postponed for now, and said, "Nana, tell me about Great-Grandfather and you. When you were young. When you got married; what was it like?"

"Ah, child, what's there to tell?" Nana put her embroidery hoop down on her lap. "A girl, a man. Like always."

"How old were you, Nana?"

"I was fourteen, my Pedro was twenty-three. He had a good job at the bakery, and his own house - two rooms, child, it was a long time ago. He used to sing to me, nonsense about my eyes; I would pretend not to notice him until he got permission from my father, but I couldn't sleep for dreaming about him. And then we had to wait to get married until my clothes were done, the best my father could afford."

"Great-Grandfather didn't buy them, then?"

"No, that's the Spanish style. We went by the old customs: I wore all my wealth, although Pedro said I was beautiful the way he'd first seen me, barefoot and dusty from the road, carrying the corn to the molino." Nana picked up her fabric and made a few more stitches, running the final one under the length of the petal, then snipped her thread. "There, that's done."

"Now you tell me, Lupe. Are you going to marry Alexander?"

"No, Nana."

Lupe had never told Nana about Alexander, how had she known? But it was nothing serious, or so she had believed; a few evenings at the movies, a dance and a kiss or two at parties, talking over coffee after classes, at least until she had started to come straight home to Nana. Now he was meeting her every day for lunch, quite insistent that they get married as soon as she graduated.

Aunt Dora would be glad to be shut of her: Lupe had long ago overheard Aunt Dora explaining to a visitor that it was only because the old lady insisted that Lupe was tolerated in the house, bastard child of a servant girl that she was, said Aunt Dora, "gotten on her by my nephew, the slut claimed, but these girls will say anything, and if he agreed, well more fool him. At least he never legally adopted the brat, just foisted her off on his grandmother to raise. She'll be lucky to get a man from a decent family," Aunt Dora had said, "she should grab him before he thinks better of it." Yes, Aunt Dora would be glad to see her married. But no.

"No, Nana," she repeated. "I'm going to go on to University. I'm going to be an architect."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Lupe," Nana said a few evenings later, "I need your help."

"Yes, Nana?" scrambling off the bed, ready to thread another embroidery needle.

"No, not now. Tomorrow. Can you come shopping with me?"

So Lupe had missed her classes (and lunch with Alex) and joined Nana in the back seat of a green taxi, surprising a driver by now accustomed to his lone passenger and apparently to her routine, for, without more instructions than "the bank, Carlos," he deposited them on the steps of a stone and glass building where a dapper little man, grey-haired but spry as a twenty-year-old, dashed across the sidewalk to open the door of the car. "My lawyer," murmured Nana.

Inside the bank, the manager, clearly expecting them, met them halfway across the lobby and escorted them to his office, where three chairs were already set out. The lawyer introduced himself - Mr. Lopez - and the bank manager - Mr. Sotelo - both men rising again from their chairs to shake Lupe's hand formally, before he snapped open his briefcase and handed a sheaf of paper to Nana, who nodded briskly and began to read.

The others waited silently. Lupe sat rigid on the front of her chair; she didn't know what to do with her hands. A truck rattled by on the street outside. In the room, the pages rustled as Nana laid them one by one on the desk in front of her, face down. Finally, she nodded once more to Mr. Lopez. "Good," she said, and, "Now, child," turning slightly in her chair.

"Yes, Nana?"

"Lupe, I've brought you here today because I'm going to die soon."

"No, Nana, not yet..."

"Silence, child. I'm going to die with my affairs in order. No wills for your Aunts to contest, saying that I was old and didn't know what I was doing, no court cases to make Mr. Lopez here rich, no digging up old stories, nothing. Mr. Lopez?" stretching out a hand, palm up, in his direction.

"Your great-grandmother," said Mr. Lopez, "has the house and bakery in trust. It was to go to your uncle, and now will pass to his widow. Besides that, your great-grandmother owns and has the disposal of her savings -"

"I've got my own use for that," said Nana.

"...considerable savings; I would still recommend a will," he continued.

"No need," said Nana.

"...and the house in Mexico City. This she wishes to give to you."

"It was to go to your father, Lupe."

"She feels that her daughter-in-law, your aunt, would find reasons to contest this item,"

"Hold it up for years," said Nana.

"...so she wants you to have it now."

"If you're careful, child, the rent will pay your way through University."

"Nana, I..."

"Silence, child. Now, where do I sign?"

So the deed was signed over and locked away in a safety deposit box, arrangements were made for rents to be paid into Lupe's account, hands were shaken all around, the bank manager declared himself delighted to have been of service, and Mr. Lopez escorted the women out to the sidewalk and the waiting taxi, still remonstrating with Nana about the need for a will, even as he shook her hand once more through the window of the car. They had lunch in a quiet restaurant just off the main plaza, where Nana talked about the city as it had been fifty years ago and refused to discuss the morning's business: "Silence, child," she repeated. Later they walked down the block to a dry-goods store where Nana bought wool yarn in red and burgundy and a deep red-black; then Carlos was back with the taxi to drive them home, Nana cat-napping in the back seat, Lupe carrying Nana's shopping bag and, clutched tightly, her old leather purse, now enriched by an envelope containing a bank book and the key to a safety-deposit box.

The work on the quechemetl started the next morning; when Lupe came home she found Nana framed by tall stalks of white flowers next to the window, her red and burgundy wools glowing jewel-like in the shaft of afternoon sunlight. In the centre front of the white cotton cape, a double-headed bird was taking birth, beaks pointing east and west, wings outstretched. Nana looked up, smiling, as Lupe dropped her school bag on the bed. "See, Lupe," she said, "it won't be too plain, after all."

Nana worked from no visible pattern, her needles following sure-footed a trail blazed in long-abandoned memory, day by day discovering a magical landscape where many-antlered deer cavorted next to self-absorbed swans, where vermilion rabbits and peacocks paraded among improbable flowers, and sleepless owls glared at chattering doves. She was tiring now; she slept often, needle and fabric slipping from her hands, losing themselves among the cushions of her chair. The wools tore at her fingertips until they were raw, as red themselves as the merry fauna of her paradise. But she held herself to her toil, morning and night. "I don't have time, child," she said when Lupe suggested a rest to let her fingers heal. "My Pedro is waiting."

For Lupe, also, time was short. Before the quechemetl was finished, summer had come, and Lupe was preparing for her final exams, studying long into the nights. At lunch with Alexander, her eyes strayed to her notes while he talked about his job prospects. She was pale; there were purple circles under her eyes. Her neck was stiff.

"You walk like an old lady, like your Nana," grumbled Alex. "You're studying too hard, Lupe. Why? Ruining your beauty, and what for, my life? What for? You don't need to go to University; I'll have a good job, I'll take care of you. Marry me, Lupe, and forget all this."

But Lupe went back to her old lady, her Nana, and helped her put on her heavy wool skirt, folding the nine pleats in front as she had been taught, and winding the belt tight around the waist.

"Now, Lupe, pin all the pleats down, top and bottom, and mark the limits of the fold in back," Nana said, and when the pins were in place, securely inserted through all three layers of fabric, "Now, undo the belt and help me out, but carefully, carefully."

The skirt was laid out on the bed and Lupe went back to redden her eyes over her textbooks, while Nana basted the pleats. They both went to bed very late that night.

Aunt Mercy's voice, raised in saccharine reproaches, was echoing down the stairway when Lupe came home the next afternoon. "...never saying a word, and dear Dora so worried; anything could happen to you, out all alone..." Aunt Mercy said, and "Ah, Lupe, here you are," as Lupe dropped her bag on the bed and went to kiss her Nana's downturned forehead.

"Your Nana has been very naughty today," Aunt Mercy said. "A taxi brought her home, sound asleep. She couldn't even tell the driver where she wanted to go, just stumbled into the back seat and fell asleep with the door open. Alone, downtown, and us here..."

"Wise of her to always take the same taxi, isn't it?" interrupted Lupe.

"But Dora and I; I would be glad..."

"Mercedes, I won't go out again." Nana's voice was submissive enough, but her eyes challenged, waved banners, triumphed. "You can tell Dora," she said, "I'll stay home now. Until they carry me out in that," waving carelessly in the direction of her coffin.

"Well!" huffed Aunt Mercy, then partially recovering, "That's good; I mean, you'll be safe, here at home, I mean; I'll tell Dora," extricating herself, escaping those sardonic eyes.

"Child," said Nana, after a pause, "can you thread a needle for me? I've got work to do."

"Yes, Nana." Lupe took the needle and the length of black thread from Nana's hand, and held them up to the window. She poked the end of thread at the gleam of light in the eye of the needle, and missed, twice. Her hand was shaking. She rested it on the window sill, and turned back.

"Nana?"

"Yes, child?"

"Nana, I..." hesitating, then bursting out; "It's not fair! You don't have to stay home just because my aunts scold! Don't listen to them, Nana!"

"Don't fret, child. I finished what I had to do. Their scolding?" Nana shooed away an imaginary fly. She grinned suddenly, a wicked, little-girl grin, full of mischief. Lupe had a sudden vision of her, fourteen years old, barefoot, hands on black-skirted hips, tongue stuck out at a tormentor; just so her Pedro, a young man himself, must have seen her and loved her; just so she must have said, "Let them scold! If they only knew!" The grin faded, and Nana was her Nana again, saying more soberly, "I closed out my account at the bank today. And paid my lawyer. I'm finished everything but the skirt."

"What do you have to do to the skirt, Nana? I know how to put it on you."

"I'm going to sew down the pleats and line them with paper so they hold their shape, lying down. It has to be perfect for my Pedro, Lupe."

"I'll help, Nana. I can do that."

"No, child. My own hands. All my wealth. My own...hands." Nana's head slumped forward. She was asleep.
Lupe threaded the needle finally, jabbed it into Nana's green velvet pincushion, and took out her books. She had a Math exam in the morning.

Nana didn't go to Lupe's graduation. She was too sleepy, she said. She was very happy, very proud, she said, but too tired. She set Lupe burrowing deep into the top shelf of her wardrobe, propelling the scent of mothballs into the room to vie for dominance with the spikenard, searching for a carved wooden box, which found, brought down and opened, disclosed a set of ornate silver earrings, black with the tarnish of many years. "My Pedro gave them to me," said Nana. "Wear them for me."

Polished, the earrings, while not in style, suited Lupe's face; with her hair smoothed up for the academic cap, they danced in incongruous light-heartedness, eliciting a sour grimace from Aunt Dora. "Entirely inappropriate," was her verdict, but Lupe tossed her head to hear the jingle of silver birds, and went off to catch a taxi.

After the ceremonies, Lupe walked in the park with Alex, taking the long way home, for once. It was quiet under the trees after the babel of voices at school and the roar and hooting of traffic; here the leaves whispered in the wind, birds twittered, feet crunched softly on crushed lava walks. The wind smelled of new-mown grass. Alex swept fallen leaves off a bench with the side of his hand. They sat.

"So what's your decision?" Alex said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you're finished. You've graduated. Now, can we get married?"

"I'm going to University, Alex."

"But why? I love you the way you are."

"Alex." How could she explain this? She spoke slowly, weighing the words as they came to her. "You only see part of me. The schoolgirl. The woman, maybe. The architect I will become is another part. When I marry, I want to bring everything, all of me, into it. If you want me, you'll have to wait."

"But I want you now."

"No, Alex."

The letter from the University came two weeks later. Lupe was accepted into the School of Architecture. She went into Mexico City to pre-register, and to find a place to stay; she rented a room in a private house near University City, almost walking distance, with meals included for a price she could afford. She went home and packed her suitcases. She wouldn't be taking much; a dozen or so books, a few clothes, a keepsake or two. Her school uniforms and textbooks she gave away.

All too soon, she was ready. But now she doubted. She sat one long evening in Nana's room, pretending to read a magazine, watching Nana's fingers push and pull the needle through the black wool. The pleats were all firmly in place, now, the triple fold in back tacked down top and bottom, and Nana had cut the skirt all the way up the centre back; so it could be wrapped around her easily, she said. Now she was blanket-stitching the cut edge, nodding off at intervals, waking soon to pick up her needle again. In the coffin, the pillow lay at the head, the quechemetl folded beside it, the belt rolled in a spiral on top.

Nana was cold, these days, in spite of the mid-summer heat, and the windows were kept tightly closed. The mixed odors of wood, wool, spikenard and mothballs, with no way to escape, became a concentrated essence of deathwatch, permeating the whole house, clinging to Lupe's hair and skin, infecting her dreams.

"Nana."

"Yes, child?"

"I don't think I should go, after all, Nana. I don't like to think of leaving you alone here. With Aunt Dora. I want to stay with you."

"Nonsense, my Lupe. Look; I'm almost finished! Less than half a seam to go." She held it up, measuring it against her arm, fingertip to elbow. "Oh, and Lupe..."

"Yes, Nana?"

"When you lay me out, remember: my feet should be bare; don't make me wear these old shoes for all those years."

"No, Nana."

"And weave wool into my braid. There's enough left from the quechemetl."

"Yes, Nana."

"And Lupe, don't look so mournful. I've had a good life, and you to cheer my last days. And my Pedro waiting for me. Be happy for me, Lupe."

"Yes, Nana." But a chill finger had brushed her cheek. She shivered in the heat. Nana was asleep again, and Lupe slid off the bed and stole from the room.

The next morning the skirt was finished. Lupe folded it neatly and added it to the collection in the coffin. She cut two lengths of burgundy wool for Nana's braid and laid them on the pillow.

Two nights later, Nana died in her sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was early afternoon and Lupe was dressing her Nana for visitors. The doctor had come and gone, the windows had been thrown open, the spikenard removed to the living room, where the coffin would soon be carried. Aunt Dora had shut herself in her room with the telephone. Lupe was alone with her Nana for the last time.

She worked quickly, washing, combing, clipping nails; doing for Nana what she could no longer do for herself. Then the clothes: Nana's best pink blouse, buttoned up to the neck for warmth; the quechemetl; a silky half-slip, Lupe's, actually, because the wool skirt would be itchy. The hair: Lupe brushed it gently back, careful not to pull, and made a long, thick braid in back, burgundy and grey twined together and draped forwards over the left shoulder.

Now she lifted her Nana, so light, like a corncob doll, and moved her to her silk-lined box, positioned her head comfortably on the pillow, straightened her limbs, bare feet together, hands for now at her sides.

The skirt was next; Lupe unfolded it, brushing away the beginnings of a crease, feeling the weight; no wonder Nana had been tired! At the top of one of the pleats, several stitches had pulled, no doubt due to a faulty knot Nana had not seen, black on black as it was. An edge of white paper was visible; it would have to be covered. Lupe pushed at it with a fingertip, then pulled instead. This was good, white, heavy paper; why did Nana not use brown wrapping paper?

She had to pull out a few more stitches, but she winkled the paper rapidly out of its sheath and unfolded it. And gasped. "Pay to the Bearer," it read. The sum would buy Lupe a good car. She calculated quickly: nine pleats, nine bearer bonds; the price of a house!

And now she understood. Nana's voice came back to her; "All my wealth," she had said, "I wore all my wealth." And again, "If only they knew! How they would scold!"

Lupe chuckled then, and quickly refolded the bond and inserted it into its pleat. A few stitches, and it was safely hidden. She smoothed the skirt around Nana's hips, tugged it straight at the hemline, snapped the belt around the waist, adjusted the point of the quechemetl, and stepped back to admire her handiwork.

Nana was beautiful, she thought, so peaceful, so - was that a hint of a grin on those still lips? - yes, so satisfied.

"Wait, Nana! You forgot something!" Lupe said, and ran to her room, returning with a small framed photo of herself. She arranged it in Nana's hands, now clasped under the quechemetl. "Give my love to Great-Grandfather," she said, bending to kiss Nana's forehead one last time.

She went to find Aunt Dora. "Nana's ready to go now," she said.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The diggers were working now, shoveling clods rapidly into the grave. At first, stones had drummed hollowly on the wooden coffin, but now the only sound was the rhythmic chick-shud, chick-shud, shovel and clod. Lupe stood watching the dirt creep up the sides of the hole. A hand touched her elbow. Alexander.

"Are you coming? We're waiting for you," he said.

At the entrance to the cemetery, the last of the mourners slammed a car door. A window rolled down, and a black-gloved hand beckoned impatiently.

"Do me a favour, Alex?" Lupe said. "Tell them to go without me. And call me a taxi. I have to take my suitcases to the bus depot."

Halfway back to the gate, Lupe turned to wave, one last wave. Above the eucalyptus, the vultures were circling.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dressing for Don Pedro

When the funeral procession rolled through the graveyard gates, the vultures took to the air, wheeling with raucous grumblings around the giant eucalyptus, finally settling in the highest branches. Their scabrous wings made irregular clapping sounds, perfunctory and belated applause for the corpse in her casket, the eulogy, perhaps for the amateur theatrics of the mourners below.

Aunt Dora stumbled as she stepped out of the lead car, and Lupe hurried around to take her arm, steadying her across the uneven ground. Aunt Dora, of course, could barely see, blinded as she was by tears, and by the scrap of black lace she was using as a handkerchief. Raspy black lace, inabsorbent, more suited to irritate, to sandpaper those drowning eyes, to redden the puffy lids.

Behind them, looking like a salesman in a black suit and tie, Alexander murmured encouraging words to Aunt Mercedes, who strode along ignoring him angrily, Lupe could see when she looked back; furious, probably at having had to cede first place in the procession to Aunt Dora, who was, after all, the widow of the defunct's son, not just a second cousin, like Mercedes.

It was Aunt Mercy's voice, though, Lupe was sure, that she heard whispering in the kitchen last night, while Lupe sat silently in the living room, watching the last candle guttering out at the head of the coffin, her great-grandmother lying serene now, triumphant in all her finery. And the whispers in the kitchen, murmurs rising and falling, respects paid, condolences offered, muted sobs, and then a new voice, more penetrating, though still sibilant: "My dear Dora! Such a tragedy! How terrible for you!" A murmur of assent, then: "Yes, we'll miss her. But what a job she has left you! That room! All that stuff to clean out! It's too much for you, my dear Dora; I'll come and help you. No," after a protesting mumble from Aunt Dora, "no, I insist!"

She would, Lupe had thought, she wants to be there when they go through Nana's room, to be present when the deeds are found, the deeds to the house and the bakery, the house in Mexico City. She wants to be the first to find the cash hidden under the mattress; don't all old people hide money there? And the key to the safety deposit box. And most of all, a new will, she's sure there must be one, hidden between the pages of the missal or secreted among the folds of long unused tablecloths, starched and ironed and folded in tissue in eternal readiness for guests that would never again sit at a table. Surely a will would be found there, surely Aunt Mercy's assiduous visits over the last year, her frequent little gifts; "...just brought you a teeny bunch of grapes, look how luscious, a dab of lotion for your hands in this dry weather, a drop of wine for the cold, my dear Nana," surely they must have paid off!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lupe knew they hadn't: Nana wasn't blind, or the doddering old fool that Aunt Dora said she was, after she fell down the stairs: "Was pushed," said Nana, "Dora pushed me" but Aunt Dora had been away at the other end of the house in her bedroom at the time, a fact attested to by the maid, who had heard Dora open her door and rush out, after the clatter on the staircase, after that terrible wail from the old lady. "Was pushed," insisted Nana, but the doctor agreed with Aunt Dora; after all, Nana was over ninety, unsteady on her feet and easily confused. It was a miracle she survived, so fragile and yet back on her feet the next day, albeit with a splint on her thumb and a large purple bruise on her cheek, still faintly discernible, even as they shut the lid on her coffin, almost a year later.

At the gravesite, a rectangular pit had been prepared to the left of Great-grandfather's headstone, the clay still damp at the bottom, baked dry on the mound alongside. The pall-bearers, Aunt Dora's two sons, two of Mercy's, lowered the coffin onto its trestle, hands involuntarily straying to middle-aged backs. The flowers were removed, laid out on the mound, the movement sending waves of cloying scent into the dusty air, spikenard and roses drawing an invisible curtain, enclosing the graves, the coffin, the mound and the mourners in their secret woe.

Lupe remembered the day she had come home from school, sunburned , eyes smarting from dust and glare and exhaust fumes, opening the street door, relaxing in the flow of cool air dropping down the staircase in its rush for the exit she had provided, tensing again as she identified the aroma it carried; spikenard, the flower of death. She had rushed up the stairs then, abandoning her school bag in the open doorway, tumbling breathless into Nana's room, to find Nana sitting tranquilly in her stiff-backed chair between the bed and the coffin, now buried in a great heap of spikenard.

"Nana! Are you all right?"

"Of course I'm all right, child. Now go down and shut that door," voice strong and confident, eyes bright, still in command of herself and her household.

Aunt Dora, of course, had her own opinion: "The woman is crazy!" she exclaimed down in the bakery for all to hear; "Last month saying she was pushed downstairs, next ordering her own coffin and having it delivered and set up in her bedroom -in her bedroom, if you can believe it! - now the flowers, spikenard ordered for every day until she dies! It's not to be tolerated!"; this last pressing her left hand to her forehead, elbow high, right hand flung outward; a flamboyant gesture of despair, wilting suddenly as she turned and saw her niece. Lupe, holding a tray half-filled with golden rolls, stood startled into stillness, the tongs poised over the bin, forgotten now in her sudden alarm and doubt.

From then on, Lupe took to sitting evenings in Nana's room, cross-legged on the foot of the bed with her books spread around her or piled on the floor, studying diligently, but every now and again glancing up, sometimes feeling alert eyes drawing her, at times made uneasy by a change in Nana's breathing, looking up to see the grey head drooping, chin on chest, that chest still rising and falling gently in this room where Nana waited for death.

But not yet. For now there was a new purpose in her step, an interest in life that had been missing since Great-Grandfather had been gone. The next morning, while Lupe was at school and Aunt Dora had gone to the market for the day's fresh vegetables, Nana phoned for a taxi; the cashier in the bakery had seen her through the window, the driver solicitously helping her into the back seat, settling her bag and her cane, seeing that her skirt was inside before shutting the door on her and driving her away. And she was not to be found; though Aunt Dora had phoned every member of the family, and all her friends, not one had seen her, until there she was in the early afternoon, in the same taxi, and obviously much pleased with herself, but so tired that she fell asleep in the midst of Aunt Dora's vehement scolding.

Nana would not say where she had been, not for Aunt Dora's threats, nor Aunt Mercy's coaxing, nor even Lupe's wide-eyed interest, limiting herself to quiet, inward focused smiles, and when much pressed, an announcement that she was going to bed early tonight, and would they all please get out of her bedroom, so she could undress.

And three days later, she went out again. This time she brought back purchases; a meter of heavy satin, creamy white to match the lining of her coffin, embroidery threads, new needles, "Something to keep me out of trouble," she said, and retired to her room to trace out flower patterns.

"What is it going to be, Nana?" asked Lupe that evening, as they sat companionably together, both working.

"A pillow for my head. In the coffin." And Lupe was suddenly embarrassed, not knowing what to say, not willing to say anything that would acknowledge the presence of that wood and chrome box, the flowers at its head and feet, the lid now thrown open to expose the place where Nana would one day lie. Lupe bent over her books, flipped pages, scribbled down frantic notes, looking up finally to Nana's amused glance.

"It's a long time to sleep without a pillow, child," she said. "A long, long time."

A week later, a peasant woman, strayed somehow from the Friday market, with a large bundle wrapped in a reboso on her back, and a grimy toddler clinging to her apron, rang the downstairs doorbell, asking for the "señora". When Aunt Dora, not a little annoyed at the interruption, went down to get rid of her, it was found that the woman had a package for "the older one, the very old señora," and Aunt Dora had to stomp back up to notify Nana, then down and up again, a double trip made necessary by her distrust of anyone in plastic shoes and wool-woven braids; how else could she be sure that the person didn't just pretend to shut the door, leaving it ajar for every thief and ruffian to come in?

The bundle, unwrapped, disclosed a length of hand-loomed black wool, still carrying the odor of the sheep it came from, blanket-stitched into a large circle: the traditional skirt of the tribal people of the area. With it was a narrow belt, woven in an elaborate design of stylized flowers and geometric figures, maybe birds, the warp a pinkish white, the woof in deep burgundy and red, knotted into a fringe at both ends. Nana would not be satisfied until she had tried it on, with the assistance of the weaver and Lupe, and had been instructed in the proper manner of forming the triple fold of fabric at the back, the nine deep pleats across the front: "Watch carefully, Lupe, you'll have to help me later," said Nana. Then with the skirt held in place - this took three hands, at first, until - "Ah! I remember now!" said Nana, holding the belt in one loop around her waist with the left hand and awkwardly reforming the pleats with the other; "Now bring the belt around once more, child, and pull it tight." Another loop, and the ends were tucked in, hands were removed, and the skirt held. "Now the quechemetl, did you bring it?" asked Nana, and the peasant woman dug once more into her reboso, producing a small white cotton cape, unadorned, which was slipped over Nana's head. The points were adjusted to hang centre front and back, just below the belt line. "Perfect!" said Nana.

"But, Nana..."

"Hush, child. Later."

And they helped her out of the skirt and cape, set her down, somewhat breathless, to recover in her solid chair, while the woman re-folded the clothes, and Lupe went to bring Nana's purse from the wardrobe.

"But, Nana," Lupe repeated, coming back into the room after escorting the weaver downstairs.

"Yes, child?"

"But the cape is so plain, Nana. And did you wear those clothes before? Why did you buy them? They're too heavy for you!"

"One thing at a time, my Lupe! Yes, I wore a skirt like this one, many many years ago, forty at least. Dora will remember. I wore the skirt the day I married, Dora won't remember that, a new skirt and quechemetl, especially made for my wedding day, very beautiful I was, and my Pedro - your great-grandfather - so handsome!"

"But why now, Nana?"

"Now? My Pedro is gone, but I will be joining him soon. I want to meet him in my bridal outfit. He'll remember."

"But the cape..."

"Child, child, so many questions! Wait and see. Just wait."

"It's indecent!" stormed Aunt Dora, at supper the next evening; "A wedding dress for her burial! The idea! And then, a native costume! Does she want to shame the whole family?" All this addressed to Aunt Mercy, who was visiting, Aunt Dora being by now beyond speaking to Nana, or even to Lupe, whom she plainly regarded as an accomplice.

But Aunt Mercy, playing out her new role as loving niece, supported Nana: "But, Dora, if it's her last wish? Everyone is entitled to last wishes! And besides, it's not as if she will be seen, with the lid..."

"Open casket," said Nana. "I've already instructed my lawyer." And she returned her attention to her bowl of soup, the clink of her spoon against the china the only sound now in the room.

Aunt Dora sat with her cup half way to her lips, eyes widened; Lupe read consternation on her face, consternation and wrath, blazing momentarily, then quickly hooded. Then the cup chunked on the table, too hard; coffee slopped over on the tablecloth, and dripped on the floor. "She went out again today," Aunt Dora said.

Lupe got up and went to the kitchen for a cloth to mop up with. When she returned, Aunt Mercy was discussing the price of vegetables in the market - outrageous, she declared, simply outrageous!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To be continued ...

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 1999

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fish Story

This is a true story, insofar as I am reporting what I saw and what was told to me. For the part that is hearsay, you will have to judge for yourself.

I was thirteen or thereabouts. We were living in one of the two houses belonging to a long-abandoned cannery, on our own island across the channel from Nootka Island. Our only neighbours were the Randalls next door, with their two little boys, and the Augusts in a floathouse moored on the beach; they had three girls. Total population: 14.

The “town” was crammed into a dimple in the coastline: a small flat area between two creeks, the cannery on pilings over the water, the dock enclosing a harbour barely big enough for our pair of boats. A rocky cliff shielded the bay from the north; beyond was a smaller inlet with its own few yards of beach and a mossy bank. We children sometimes scrambled through the bush to picnic there.

To the south there was nothing. Mountainsides plunging into the sea. Douglas fir cut off abruptly at the high-tide line. Spray hissing over black rocks. Perilous waters, impassible forests. No place for humans.

One Saturday afternoon Mom took the canoe out alone and went south. I didn’t see her go, but I remember how I looked up from catching crabs on the beach and saw her coming home. First, the prow of the canoe appearing from beyond the promontory, a green triangle with a tiny bow wave, then Mom kneeling amidships, back straight, paddling fast. When she rounded the end of the wharf and saw me watching, she raised her paddle high in the air. I waved back, and she dipped the paddle again and spun in to her landing. I went back to my rock-turning.

When I went into the house later, Dad was in the kitchen gutting a large salmon, and Mom was leaning over the counter, talking excitedly. This is her tale:

She had gone out for a quiet paddle, heading straight out across the channel, but once she was beyond the shelter of the bay, she saw a pod of seals just off the coast to the south. She turned and went towards them. As she approached, she saw that they were playing; climbing onto the rocks and diving off, leaping and cavorting in the water. They didn’t seem to notice Mom in the canoe.

She drew closer, paddling as quietly as she was able. The seals ignored her. They were throwing something repeatedly into the air; it looked like a kids’ game of catch. Mom held her paddle still, just steering as she drifted closer. Occasionally, she took a small stroke, a slow, gentle push in the right direction.

The game went on. Now Mom could see that the seals were throwing fish, flipping the live salmon out of the water, snatching them before they escaped, tossing them into the air again. Mom eased in closer, almost holding her breath. The seals made way for the canoe until she was right in the centre of the pod. And the game went on.

How long she floated there, she wasn’t sure. The seals barked and splashed, dove under the canoe and came up on the other side, curved and danced around her. Salmon flew.

And then – thud! – a fish landed in the canoe and writhed between the ribs. The seals stopped their play. They looked at Mom; she looked back at them. Nobody moved. After a while, Mom said, “Thank you,” turned and paddled out of the circle. When she glanced back, the water was empty; the seals were gone.

Mom told us – she swore it – that the salmon was a gift. It didn’t land in her canoe by accident, she said; she was convinced that the seals knew what they were doing. It was a good salmon, too; firm, pink meat, shiny scales. And not a tooth mark on it.

Fishermen are notorious for stretching the truth. But Mom was no fisherman; as far as I know, she had never even baited a hook. You may believe her story or not, as you like. I know what I know: I ate my share of the salmon.


Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004




Thursday, April 1, 2010

Listen up, Oso Bear!

(Since it's Easter, I'm posting a poem written for my grandson, Erik, who was 5 years old at the time. "Oso" means "bear", and Oso Bear was his teddy.)

What's this I'm hearing,
    Oso Bear?
Such behaviour,
    Oso Bear!
What Erik tells me - is it true?
Is this something bears should do?
Is your mother proud of you,
    Oso Bear?

You've been nibbling - did you dare?
Chocolate candies in your lair.
Easter eggs that Mommy hid,
Chocolate bunnies for a kid,
You've been biting - Yes, you did!
    Oso Bear.

Good bears eat berries,
    Oso Bear,
From the forest,
    Oso Bear.
Blackberries with purple juice,
Strawberries, or you can choose
Thimble, huckle, logan, goose,
    Oso Bear.

Your big cousin, grizzly bear,
Flips a salmon in the air,
Shimmery trout from quiet pools,
Oolichan that swim in schools.
Bears eat fish, if they aren't fools,
    Oso Bear.

What's that you tell me,
    Oso Bear?
Don't like seafood,
    Oso Bear?
But chocolate eggs are just no good-
For bears, that is; I think you should
Try ants or termites. Sure you could,
    Oso Bear!

Have you tried honey,
    Oso Bear?
Bears love honey,
    Oso Bear.
Sweet and fragrant, gooey; plus,
Eat it all; no-one will fuss.
Just leave the Easter eggs for us,
    Oso Bear!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Heat waves and other illusions

Note: This story is taken from a collection of childhood reminiscences written for my grandchildren, in the book "Susie". Time frame; early 1940s to mid-50s.

We were driving through Arizona in the summertime. It was hot. You couldn’t sit back on your seat in the car; you would get stuck to it. Where the sunshine fell on the upholstery, it burned your skin. Dad was driving in his underwear, the red shorts with the fire-engines on them. Dave and Mark, in the back seat with me, wore shorts, too, but Mom and I were properly dressed. I lifted my skirt occasionally and fanned my legs, but it didn’t help much. It was hot, hot, hot.

Ahead of us, the highway looked as if it were underwater, cool, clear water rippling and splashing. As we raced towards it, it disappeared, leaving empty grey highway. Mom explained about optical illusions and mirages. I began looking out the side window, hoping to see a real mirage; an oasis, perhaps, with a palm tree or two, a pool, maybe a donkey resting in the shade. But I saw nothing out there but desert. Parched brown dust, rocks, half-dead shrubs, a few cacti. Nothing green, not even the leaves. Not a real green, anyway, not a live green; just a greyish, dusty, dreary pretense.

At noon, Dad pulled over on the side of the road. We unstuck ourselves from the seats and piled out of the car.

“Out of the frying pan…” Mom said.

She handed out sandwiches and we sat on the running board in the shadow of the car and ate. Dad wandered around, stretching. A little way off, he stopped, then waved and shouted, “Hey, look! Water!”

We caught up to Dad and passed him, running. Ahead, sunlight glinted off a smooth surface; no waves, no heat ripples here! I didn’t notice until later that there was no green fringe around this pond, just the everlasting grey shrubs. We slowed as we came near. Something was wrong; the water was too dark, too still. Deep and muddy, maybe. No good for wading.

And we came to the edge and stood staring.

“What is it, Dad?” Dave asked.

“Tar. Melted tar. It’s a tar pit.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Out of the rocks. Don’t fall in!” This last sharply, to Mark, who was poking at the surface with a dead stick.

It was Dave that found the second pool, just beyond a clump of shrubs. It was a smaller pit, but with an interesting addition. Shoulder-deep in the tar, struggling, was a skunk, furry black in the smooth black of the entrapping tar. We stood and watched as the tar crept up its back. The more it fought, the faster it sank.

“How did he get there, Dad?”

“Fell in. Probably thought it was water and tried to get a drink.”

“He’s going to drown. We’ve got to help him!”

Dad found a sturdy pole and poked at the tar. It was up to the skunk’s muzzle now, lapping at the white stripe in the centre of its back. With the pole, Dad managed to pry up the chin – just a bit. “I’ll try under its belly,” he said. Sweat ran down his face; he brushed it away with the back of his hand and buried the end of his stick deep in the tar. He grunted, then; “It’s coming!” he said. The stick brought something black and sticky out of the tar; the skunk’s tail. Progress!

And then the skunk sprayed.

We were lucky, Mom said later, that the rest of us were standing on the opposite side of the pit. Dad used up all our drinking water trying to wash the skunk smell off. Behind the car, he changed into a clean shirt and his old stripy underwear. Mom threw his shoes and the fire-engine shorts into the ditch.

We drove away from there. It was hot and the car smelled, even with all the windows down, and the desert was dry and dusty. I didn’t look for mirages any more.

“I’m sorry, little skunk,” I thought. “We tried. That was all we could do. I’m sorry.”


Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004



Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nusatsum: A parable

Many years ago, when the world was young, or at least I was, I moved into a cabin in a long valley in the north country. The back of the cabin looked over a meadow to green foothills and, towering over them, snow-capped even in August, the mountain our end of the valley was named for. Nusatsum, the natives called it.

The old-timers told me there were legends about the mountain; a lonely chieftain, a sleeping maiden. "You can see him waiting up there, in the snow," someone said. I couldn't. Nothing there but massive rocks and eye-blinding white.

In the evenings we sat with our coffee on the back porch, looking at the mountain. I tried and tried to make out a figure, a face, even a facial feature. Visitors pointed him out to me: "Look near the top on the right; you should be able to see his eye." No.


Suddenly, one night, the shadows acquired meaning: there he was. A long nose, a deeply shadowed eye, a mournful mouth. He was the mountain, or rather, the mountain was him. He sat, half reclining, facing east. The setting sun tinted his head pink, as if he wore an exotic feather headdress.

"I see him!" I told my companion. "See; that sharp line at the top, it's his forehead, plain as day!"

She stared, tilted her head to one side, then the other. "I don't see him." She sat back, sipping her coffee. She looked at the mountain again. "Wait! I see what you mean! There he is!"

We watched, entranced, as the sunlight faded and died, leaving only a glowing brightness up there where the sky brushed Nusatsum's cheek. Our coffee chilled in the cups.

"I am glad he's facing East," I said. "He'll be watching the sun come up."

"East? He's facing West!"

"No, that's East," I said, pointing.

"Wait a minute! What are you seeing? The face I see looks West! That way!"

In the dark of the porch I couldn't see my friend's face, just her arm thrust out, her hand gesturing in the moonlight. "That way!" she repeated.

I felt betrayed, somehow.


My friend never knew Nusatsum as I knew him. It's a pity. Weekday evenings, driving up valley after yet another weary day, I kept my eyes on his brilliant face and was comforted. So pure he was, so regal, so serene. So patient.

It was long ago when I was young, but still he sits unchanging, forever watching the morning.


Stories of Bella Coola
© Susannah Anderson, 1999




Friday, March 19, 2010

The legend of La Llorona

On chilly nights in Mexico City, when the wind wails on the street corners or whispers at the rejas of your window, the old crones tell you this story...


It was long ago, they say, before the Spanish conquerors arrived. The city -Tenochtitlán, they called it in those days-still floated on chinampas in the centre of the valley. It was a merry city, bright with flowers and alive with the cries of water birds and the melodies of clay flutes. The warriors were brave, the maidens beautiful. And the most beautiful of them all was Cihuacoatl; some call her a goddess. Always dressed in white, her glossy black hair done in two long braids tipped with brilliant feathers, she made the sun rise just by stepping out of her father's house in the morning.

She was fifteen when she met the most handsome of all the Aztec princes; it was love at first sight for both of them, and soon she presented him with two beautiful baby boys, twins as strong and healthy and smart as any man could desire. Twins that were his pride and delight, even though he no longer loved Cihuacoatl.

Why her prince left her, no-one knows. Some say he had a wife in another city. Some say he was an adventurer, always looking for a new challenge across the next hill. Perhaps he had been lured away by a younger, fresher goddess, or a captured maiden from a competing tribe. Or perchance there was some flaw in Cihua's character, something not evident to ordinary onlookers, dazzled by her beauty as they were.

Be that as it may, Cihua mourned his faithlessness. The laughter died; she no longer sang as she dressed and bathed her babies; she forgot to put the feathers in her hair. The days were a burden and an ache. She spent long hours at the edge of the canal, watching the dark water swirling sluggishly around the roots of the chinampa.

One evening, after the boys were asleep, she looked across the water and saw her prince. He was as handsome as the day she had first known him; bronzed and sleek, wearing golden armbands and a loincloth of ocelot skins; her heart turned over in her breast. For beside him, laughing, was a woman in some strange foreign garb, embroidered all over with flowers. Laughing, and holding his arm!

A hopeless fury engulfed Cihuacoatl. She called out his name and he looked in her direction. Just a glance, indifferent, as if she were some chance acquaintance. Then he turned his back to her and steered his new woman around a corner.

"Come back! Come back!" Cihua cried, but only the wind answered. She rushed into her hut and carried out her sleeping boys, one in each arm. On the bank of the canal, she called to him again; "Don't you even want to see your babies?" But her prince was far away now; she couldn't even hear the woman's laugh. Tears blinded her.

"Then take your babies!" she shouted. She tossed the right hand one into the canal; he made a small splash, almost a plop. She threw the left hand twin after him. There was a sharp wail, cut off in a moment by a gurgle. Then silence.

Cihua's eyes cleared; the light came back. Her babies were floating down the stream, face down, too far away now for her to reach. The pole from the boat would help, she thought; she ran to get it, but when she got back, the twins were gone.

All that night Cihua searched, running along the banks, crouching to peer among the dark roots, straining in the moonlight to decipher every glimmer, every ripple. She wailed, but no-one heard her, no-one came to help her. They found her in the morning, bedraggled and dripping, whether dead from grief or from drowning the old ones aren't sure.


And so they tell you, the old folks, never to go out alone into the night and especially to stay well away from the canals. Cihuacoatl wanders there, wailing and sobbing; you can hear her from far away, crying into the wind. Legend has it that when she arrived at the gate of paradise, the guardian asked her for the souls of her twin boys. He won't let her enter until she returns with them, and so she searches, mourning, always near the water. On rainy nights she is deceived by the drenched pavement and roams the city streets; they have seen her, they say, a white figure in the mist, with uncombed hair and muddy skirts.

"La llorona", they call her now, the weeping woman. "Ay, mis hijos, my babies," she cries, "Ayyy! Where can I find you?"

So don't, don't go out alone at night. Who knows; you may encounter la llorona. And who knows; in her despair, she may mistake you for her faithless prince or for his newest love, and her anguish may turn to rage. Then the last thing you will ever feel is the clutch of her cold, wet fingers at your throat.

~~~

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 2004