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.

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

Remembering Jellybean

She still comes to Christmas dinner. And birthdays and weddings: anytime the family is together. Sooner or later someone says, "Jellybean would have loved this," and I catch a fleeting glimpse of her, a small, bony, black shadow dropping silently off the window sill. Or a watchful yellow eye gleams under the sofa, then fades back into the darkness. I dare not look directly at her; shy in her lifetimes, she's even more furtive now. But she owns us just as securely as she did in the days of her physical reign.

We met her the summer of '77. In the wake of a family breakdown, the children were lonely and bewildered. From experience I knew that the best shoulder to cry on was soft and furry, so after a few phone calls and a short drive, we found ourselves beside an old farmhouse, peering at a half dozen lively kittens under a lilac bush. My daughter, Betty, chose the black one, smaller than her grey brothers, scrawny but playful. She crooned to her in the back seat all the way home.

Why did she name her Jellybean? No-one seems to remember, but her sister Pauline followed suit, calling her terrier-daschhund puppy Cookie, and starting a family tradition: all pets must have food names.

Jellybean acclimatized herself quickly to her new home. She played happily with the children, allowed Cookie to pull her around by the ear, and slept on Betty's stomach at night.

Then one day when Betty came home from school, she couldn't find her. We looked all through the house, then went up and down the street calling "Here, kitty, here, kitty!" No Jellybean. Betty moped and wouldn't eat.

The next day and the next we looked for the kitten everywhere. I had given up, when a neighbour came in. "Is this your kitten? The coon hounds had her treed in the vacant lot." It was Jellybean all right, skinny, shivering and rumpled, but obviously happy to be home. Both she and Betty ate huge suppers that night.

From that day on, she loathed all dogs but Cookie.

She was never happy around strangers. If you had come to visit us, you would have had to stay several days before you glimpsed a black tail disappearing around a corner. Her favorite hideout was under the fridge; once she stayed there for three days. The only exceptions to this were dog owners. Strange dogs were not allowed to trespass on her property. She would attack them and drive them off, even if it meant facing the owners.

The day after the birth of her first litter, a political canvasser came to our door with her miniature poodle. I was standing at the open door when a whirlwind of flying fur and scalpels clawed past. In seconds, the poodle was racing down the driveway, yelping frantically, with Jellybean one pace behind. Somehow both my leg and arm were bleeding. Luckily, the poodle was not seriously hurt.

After that, I kept the screen door closed until I had checked the porch for dogs, and eventually Jellybean learned not to attack dogs I had okayed. But she spent hours skulking under the shrubs behind the fence, watching for dogs walking down "her" street. Let one take a step over her imaginary line, and she became black lightning, striking the dog and gaining cover while he stood bewildered and bleeding.

Maybe it was her ordeal with the coon hounds. I think she had decided that never again would she be cowed by a dog, no matter how big he was. She chased German shepherds as enthusiastically as she did Pekes. Soon even the biggest neighbourhood dogs learned to walk on the other side of the street.

When Jellybean was two years old, we moved north, to homestead in a log cabin on 10 acres of rocky side hill. Of course we took Jellybean with us. Other cats could come and go, but Jellybean was family. She caused no end of trouble, but she belonged with us. She got along well with the rest of the family, humans and others, as long as we obeyed her orders. We cuddled her when she wanted us to, and left her alone when she didn't.

She was not really a beautiful cat. She was very small, and thin almost to emaciation. Visitors confused her with her own kittens. There seemed to be a basic disproportion in her lines: her head was too small, her neck too long. But her black fur was glossy and scrupulously clean and her yellow eyes glowed in a tiny elfin face.

Our new home was Jellybean's idea of heaven. We had a big sunny field in a valley surrounded by untouched forest. There were fish in the creek, thousands of mice in the field, and, oh, delight! a big lilac bush by the old barn. Cookie chased butterflies by the hour, while Jellybean dozed under the lilacs or in the sleepy warmth of the hayloft.

In July she gave birth to one black and white kitten, whom we named Popcorn. It was often rainy so we made a dry bed for them in the van. There she slept through the long days of a northern summer, or sat in the open door surveying her territory impassively.

In mid-August I had to take the van to drop off some eggs on the other side of the river. Jellybean and Popcorn were curled up sound asleep in back. I hated to disturb them so I just shut the doors and windows carefully before I climbed into the passenger seat and handed the keys to Marcos, who was learning to drive.

At home again, I went to the back to open the door for Jellybean, and found Popcorn, still asleep, but alone.

"Marcos, have you seen Jellybean?" I called.

"No, she's probably around somewhere."

"But she was in the van when we left."

"Oh no! I didn"t know she was there. I got out to see the dog and left the door open!"

So we went back, a mile down the road to the bridge high over the turbulent waters of the creek, four more miles to the Bailey bridge over the river, three more miles past tall rocky cliffs to our egg customers' home. Would she still be in the yard? What would Betty say if she was gone?

The yard was empty. The German shepherd yawned lazily on the front porch. Jan, our customer, had been busy inside. No, she hadn't seen the cat. We walked around the edges of the bush calling, searching the trees, listening for an answering "Meow". Nothing. The dog watched us curiously for a while and went to sleep. We finally gave up and drove home in glum silence.

In the next week we went back repeatedly to ask about Jellybean. Jan set out food on the woodbox out of the dog's reach, and kept an eye on it. "Today I saw a blotchy brown cat" she would report. "Are you sure yours is completely black?"

"Mom," Betty insisted, "we can find her if we look in the right place. We have to look in the bush." So we walked through the bush for hours. "She's here. I know she's here!" Betty would say and we'd listen and call again and again. Finally we gave up hope and went home.

September came and went. The days were shorter now; it was dark before we finished supper. When we had our first hard frost Betty cried all afternoon. "She'll freeze. Mom! We have to find her!"

There really wasn't much hope. Jellybean could probably find a warm barn and plenty of mice, but all the farms had big dogs; big country dogs, trained to repel bears and cougars. A scrappy cat would find no welcome.

I agreed to try one last time. We went back and walked through the frozen bush, calling until we were hoarse, "Jellybean, Jellybean, here, Jellybean. Where are you Jellybean?" When night fell we went sadly home.

A month later we were setting the table for supper, when Marcos came in from the woodshed with the news: "There's a cat crying up a tree behind the house. Where's Popcorn?"

He was in his usual place, curled up asleep under the wood stove. Betty dashed out the door, and back again immediately. "Mom! It's Jellybean! I know her voice!"

"No, Betty. We're too far away. It's some other cat." I knew she was in for a disappointment. Why did this have to happen? But we went out with a flashlight- it was pitch dark already- and met two yellow eyes staring down at us from a scraggly pine tree.

Marcos climbed up slowly while I held the flashlight. There were sounds of a struggle; the tree shook and Marcos yelled "Ouch! Ow!" and "I got her! I think it's Jellybean!"

Betty danced impatiently below while he climbed down. As soon as his feet hit the ground, she grabbed the cat and ran inside without a word of thanks.

It was Jellybean. She was thinner than ever and her coat was dull. She was limping badly: one shoulder blade had evidently been broken and then healed. It was an inch higher than the other, but she didn't seem to be in pain. She ignored us all, drank some milk, then wandered around the house looking in all the corners. When she found Betty's bed she curled up in the centre of it and went to sleep.

I was amazed, astounded that she had lived, had managed to find us miles away across two rivers in unfamiliar territory, and with a serious injury as well. She continued to amaze me as she returned to her normal sleek self in a few weeks. Her deformed shoulder never straightened itself out, but she ran and climbed trees as fast as she ever did.

We have a theory about her shoulder. We think she must have been caught and mauled by one or more of the cougar hounds near Jan's house. At any rate, her hatred of all dogs but Cookie had intensified. She would now chase, hissing and spitting, any dog in sight.

Spring came, and we raced to get the farm operating: rototilling, plowing, planting, weeding, pruning and raking. We bought chicks and built them a chicken coop. We built a pig sty, rabbit hutches, and a stall for Inga, the goat.

Cookie and Jellybean worked as hard as any of us. They inspected every inch of the grounds, and supervised all our tasks. Cookie bounced around every work party, her tail pointing straight up to where Jellybean could be seen in the rafters or a tree.

By summer the family had grown. The barn was bursting with rabbits, geese, chickens, goats and a horse. The pig sty housed two piglets, and in the house Jellybean reigned over a family of two adults, six children, Popcorn, Cookie, her mate Pepper, three pups, and three kittens.

"I think it's about time for lunch." It was a typical Saturday and we were on our knees in the garden, digging out thistles. I got to my feet and stretched sore muscles. "Look how much we got done! One more morning should do it!"

Marcos was the first to head down the trail to the house, with Cookie and Pepper at his heels, but Jellybean took a shortcut through the nettle patch and met us at the door. We made sandwiches and juice and collapsed on the front porch. Jellybean made the rounds, sampling each sandwich, before she chose a lap to sleep on.

"It's getting hot. Can we go down to the creek after lunch?" Pauline never liked sitting still for long.

"Sure. Just come back in time to feed the animals before supper."

Jellybean always led the way on these outings. She would run ahead, looking for dogs, then back as if to say "All clear. Are you coming or not?" Cookie followed hard on her heels. On her own she was afraid of other dogs, but with Jellybean there, nothing fazed her.

Back home in the cool of the evening we barbecued pork chops on the lawn and lounged around lazily until the mosquitos forced us inside. Cookie and Pepper stayed out to gnaw on the leftover bones and gristle. At bedtime they came inside to sleep under the stove.

In the morning, passing the front door on my way to the kitchen, I stopped to exult in the beauty of the greenery outside. Green sloping lawn, mock orange bush beside the porch, rose bush, weeping willows and ... what was that? A black bear ambled out from behind the trunk of the largest tree and sat down to nibble on the bone he was holding.

"Kids! Come quick!" I stage whispered. "Shhh! Look out the window."

We clustered around all the windows on that side of the house. The bear finished his bone and nosed around looking for another. He was magnificent, but how were we going to get out of the house? He was only a few yards from both the front and side doors.

Pepper was dancing up and down excitedly by the door. Maybe if he saw the bear, he'd bark and maybe -- just maybe -- it might decide to leave. I opened the door a crack.

"Ssssst! Ssssst!" Jellybean clawed her way over Pepper's back, through the crack, and made a beeline for the intruder, spitting as she went. The bear took one startled look at her and leaped into the willow. Jellybean followed him into the higher branches, slashing at his tail and feet.

Now what? I opened the door wider and Cookie dashed out to join Pepper, barking at the foot of the tree. The bear squirmed a little higher with Jellybean right below.

We were in a tricky situation. We couldn't leave the house; at any moment the bear might decide to make a run for it, and anyone in his way could be badly hurt. We had to get the animals inside. Cookie and Pepper came quickly when we called, but Jellybean ignored us until Betty thought of dangling a kitten out the door. Then she scrambled down, suddenly worried. Maybe that nasty bear had hurt her kitten? She rushed to see, and we slammed the door behind her.

The kitten was checked over and washed, and Jellybean had joined us again at the door before the bear decided it was safe to scramble back down the trunk. At the bottom he stood, peering short-sightedly around the yard. Nothing moved. He snuffled in the grass, looking for his bone, then gave up and started up the hill. At the apple tree on the edge of the forest he hesitated, considering. Would he come back? I couldn't risk it: I opened the door to let Jellybean out.

Too soon: the bear spun on his heels and made for the willow again. This time he went higher, and it was harder to convince Jellybean to come back. All her kittens were awake and mewing before she would leave the intruder, spitting insults over her shoulder. "Just you wait!" she seemed to be saying; "As soon as I take care of my babies, I'll be back to deal with you!"

I waited longer the next time; not until the bear had gained the cover of the bush would I open the door again. Jellybean dashed out and disappeared into the bush with Cookie and Pepper yipping madly in her wake. Their noise -- crashing, barking, caterwauling -- moved up the side hill and faded into the next dip.

Much later Jellybean strutted back, tail held over her head like a victorious banner, her exhausted doggy troops panting in the rear. We never saw the bear again.

Oh, those eternal summer days! And the long, cozy winter evenings, with me in my big chair next the stove, Cookie snoring on the sofa, Pepper's toenails click-clicking on the floor on his way back from the kitchen -- with a house full of teenagers, somebody is always eating -- and kids spread out on sofas and rugs, doing homework, sewing a quilt, or just talking.

Those days are gone now; in 1985 we moved back to the city to be near the University. And one by one, the kids left to found their own families.

Jellybean is gone, too. One evening, shortly before we moved, she didn't come home for supper, nor for breakfast the next day. A week later, a neighbour mentioned having seen her chasing several of the local dogs off into the bush. "They were too many for her, I guess," she said. "She was one spunky cat, though."

But last Christmas, when we all gathered at Marcos' home, she was there. Tucked away in the darkest shadow behind the Christmas tree, I saw her, intently eyeing a toddler with a tipsy paper plate of turkey and stuffing. And in the momentary silence before we said the blessing, I'm positive I heard her purring.


Stories of Bella Coola
© Susannah Anderson, 1996