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.

Monday, December 26, 2022

The finger

My brother Dave was tough. He could hold a lighted match under his hand until I smelled the burnt flesh. He caught bumblebees and let them sting him. He never winced, not once. I thought he was crazy. Mom said he was just like her brothers—accident prone.

Danger held a strange fascination for him. If he fell out of a tree, he climbed higher the next time. He played with knives and hatchets. He rode his bike over impossible hills.

We did everything together, he and I. He pranced over creeks on slippery, mossy logs; I crawled, protesting. He waited for me, across the creek, at the bottom of the hill, in the rafters of the old cannery. I followed everywhere he went, slowly, cautiously.

The summer I turned ten and Dave nine, we were in Toronto, staying with my “Nana”, Grandma Anderson. Mom and Dad were busy with grown-up stuff; I remember seeing our old Dodge from the window of the Yonge Street bus. License number U9O64; yes, that was ours. It was parked by the curb, a squarish black car among all the bright 50’s models. I didn’t see my parents.

Nana had a big, sunny back yard, surrounded by deep beds of flowers, daisies and hollyhocks and snapdragons. High fences, a tidy shed; not much trouble there to get into. We spent too many quiet hours there, catching bees and wishing we were home again. We had to be good in Nana’s house. 

Grandma Whitelaw took us some days. Her house was more fun, inside and out. She had a messy, crowded basement where I found stacks of moldy-smelling magazines with romantic love stories continued from one to the other. On the main floor, Grandpa had his study. I remember bookshelves and a huge roll-top desk and the crokinole board, always waiting for us on the footstool. Dave was good; his aim was deadly. I always lost to him, but somehow I beat Grandpa most of the time.

We didn’t see much of Grandma. She didn’t talk to children; she fed us and left us to our own devices. We weren’t allowed in her kitchen, except to eat.

We didn’t go upstairs. Grandma rented out the front bedroom, at the top of the stairs. We had to be quiet in the house so as not to disturb the roomer.

It didn’t matter; there was another big back yard here, a better one than Nana’s from our point of view. Apple trees to climb and harvest. A tumble-down shed with long-unused gardening tools. Long grass and dandelions, mud to dig in.

Dave found an old push lawnmower, and we cut a few paths across the grass. It was heavy work. We gave up. Dave flipped the lawnmower upside down and examined the blades. “Watch out, they’re sharp,” I said. He ignored me and spun one of the  wheels. The knives flashed.

“Come here, turn the wheel for me,” he said. He picked a dandelion and watched as the head was lopped off. Another. A blade of grass.

“Faster!” He held a whole handful of grass up to the blades. Tiny green flakes flew up into our faces. “Faster!” I started to use two hands. Dave fed in more dandelions.

“There’s blood on your finger,” Dave said. I stopped spinning the wheel and looked. He was right. My finger tip was dangling at a strange angle, and now the blood was dripping onto my dress. It didn’t hurt, though. 

Dave jumped up and ran into the house, yelling. I followed him, holding up my hand—the nail portion flopped back, held on by a tiny scrap of skin. Dave ran through the kitchen, down the dark hall, up the stairs to where the sun shone unexpectedly from the roomer’s flung-open door. He was screaming, though I don’t remember the words, only Grandma holding him by the shoulders and asking what was wrong. The roomer, an old, old lady with white hair, stood in her doorway. Behind her, a bright afghan slipped off her still-moving rocker.  

Two steps down from the landing, I waited, repeating quietly, “My finger’s off, my finger’s off.” The blood ran down my arm. It still didn’t hurt.

Eventually Dave calmed down enough to point at me, and I was taken care of. A doctor sewed my finger-tip back on. It took 15 stitches, a fact I was inordinately proud of. 

I wore a big bandage and a sling for what seemed like months. Now it did hurt- bad, and all the way to my elbow. I hated to get dressed and undressed; I had to lower my hand to put it through the sleeves and then my finger throbbed for a long time. I didn’t dare complain; Dave wouldn’t.

Back at Nana’s, I was spoiled. I got to sleep in Aunt Connie’s bedroom, with the big cedar right up against the window, so the curtains never had to be pulled. The room had a slightly sweet smell; an odour of well-worn blankets, old wood, wicker and ancient varnish. Aunt Connie had a silver dressing-table set, two brushes, a hand mirror and a funny little tool I didn’t recognize. She didn’t clean the hair out of her brush like I had been taught to, and I made a little rope out of my gleanings and compared it to my hair colour. In the scant light from the window, it looked almost the same.

Eventually the bandages came off and I was demoted to my previous status. I wore the sling for another week until it became a nuisance.

The pain faded, but never completely vanished. For years, on rainy days my whole hand ached. The finger-tip was extremely sensitive; just picking up a book the wrong way sent stabs of fire down the bones. Today, forty-plus years later, it hurts to clip that nail.

Every time I see Dave now, he has a new story to tell of his visits to Emergency wards. He doesn’t seem to mind. I think he could still hold a candle to his hand until it cooked.

Stories of childhood

Susannah Anderson, 2000

Friday, December 23, 2022

Sarah Finds a Friend

Once upon a time, (all good fairy stories start like this, and this is a fairy story, even though there are no fairies in it;) once upon a time there was a princess. Now other fairy-tale princesses are radiantly beautiful, or astoundingly ugly, happy as a cat on a cozy lap, or mournful as a rainy afternoon, but Sarah -- that was her name -- was just okay-looking, just almost-pretty. And she was sometimes cheerful and sometimes a bit bored. 

She lived in a castle too new to have a ghost and too small to get lost in. There was some gold -- on the picture frames -- and some silver -- the spoons and a coffee urn. Her father, the king, was very busy, always on the phone or closeted with important-looking people in dark suits. At supper, he would always ask, "What did you do today, Sarah, my pet?"

And Sarah always said, "Nothing, papa."

And her mother always said, "What do you mean, Sarah? We had a perfectly lovely afternoon, walking in the gardens and arranging the flowers, didn't we?"

"Yes, mamma," Sarah said, because she was a very polite little princess.

When winter came and the flowers died, the queen stayed inside and worked on her embroidery, but Sarah walked alone every afternoon, through the rose garden with all its bare thorny stalks, under the empty grape arbour, around the rhododendrons, and into the orchard. In the centre of the orchard, there was a fountain, with a statue of a faun and a little marble bench. One day, Sarah was sitting on the bench, waiting for it to be time to go in for supper, when she caught a glimpse of something shiny, all purple and pink, moving behind the statue. She jumped up and went to see what it was, but there was nothing. "Hello? Who's there? Where are you?" she called.

"Here I am, Your Highness, Her Majesty the queen sent me to call you to supper," said a voice, and Sarah turned and saw only the lady's maid, in a brown uniform.

"Did you see anyone else here?" Sarah asked.

"No, Your Highness, only your Highness. And Her Majesty the queen says to hurry, if you please, the king your father is waiting."

So Sarah went in to supper with her curiosity unsatisfied. But when her father the king asked, "What did you do today, Sarah, my pet?" she answered, as usual,

"Nothing, papa."

What did Sarah see? Well, I'm glad you asked. Under the apple trees, and around the rhododendrons, the gardener's assistant had been planting daffodil bulbs for the spring flowering. But, being only the assistant, he had been careless, and spilled half a bucket of bulbs on the path, where, instead of picking them up, he had just kicked them off under a handy bush. So he didn't look closely, or he would have seen that one was not a bulb, but an egg. An odd-looking egg, at that, striped, ever so faintly, in pale purple and paler green. 

The bulbs landed under the bush and stayed there, but the egg was round and it rolled out the other side, and into a mossy hollow where a wintry ray of sunlight lit on it, and warmed it. Soon a crack appeared at the pointed end of the egg. Another crack opened, and another, and with a snap! the end fell off. And out crawled the last, the very latest, of the dinosaurs.

The egg had been buried deep in the clay where the sun never shone, for centuries, until a big back hoe excavated the hillside to make a housing development. There had been a bumpy ride since;  it was dumped onto the riverside with a pile of rocks, to make a breakwater, washed down to a muddy bank and dug up to level out the ground on the daffodil farm, then bagged and trucked, and finally spilled on the ground and kicked. All it needed was a touch of sun to wake up the sleeping dinosaur inside.

While the new-hatched dino is yawning and stretching, and uncoiling his tail, we have a minute to look at him. He is still tiny, only about a foot long, not counting the tail, which is as long as the rest of him all together. His head is too small, but it makes up for that by its colour: a vibrant, eye-dazzling neon blue. His sides are purple, shading down into pink towards the tail, which darkens to a deep cherry-red at the very tip. His belly is striped, like the egg, in pale purple and green. And along his back there is a row of triangular fins covered in glossy green scales.

Whether this is the true colour of dinosaurs, or whether the long ages in the clay brought about some magic, we will never know. There are no other dinosaurs around to compare. This baby dino has no mother.

When he finished working out the kinks in his tail, the dinosaur looked around for something to eat. Some race memory, some instinct, made him think of giant hibiscus flowers, and insects buzzing in the shade of the mammoth ferns, but all he could see was moss and cold bare branches.  Then he heard the water running in the fountain and set out to get a drink. This was when Sarah saw him, and frightened him, running and shouting. He hid quickly under the rhododendrons until she went away.

When he was sure no-one could see him, he went to the fountain and drank.  Next, he ran back and forth over the moss to keep warm, until he found some half-rotten apples under a tree. He tried one: it was soft and full of holes, but it didn't taste too bad. There was a fat green worm in the core: it was delicious. He ate wormy apples until it was too dark to find them. Afterwards, he dug himself a hole in the moss and rolled up in it, nose to tail, shivering and wishing he was back in his warm egg. It took him a long time to get to sleep.

Sarah was out early the next morning, going for a walk before it rained, she told her lady's maid. Of course, she ran straight to the orchard. And of course, right away she noticed the bare patch where a dinosaur had torn up the moss to make a blanket. In the centre was a small green mound, gently snoring.  Sarah poked at it with a broken branch and it spluttered and shook. The moss fell off to one side, and a bright blue head stretched out towards her, with the mouth wide open. Sarah jumped back. Was this a snake? Do blue snakes bite?

No, the creature was just yawning. He stood up, all purple and pink in  the morning sunlight, shaking off the rest of the moss. His tail curved up behind him like a cartoon question mark.  He looked at Sarah. Sarah looked at him. She came closer, carefully. He didn't move.

Then Sarah noticed the creature's eyes. The pupils were strange; not round and black, but rather a deep green spiral, spinning. They held her, and now she felt her own eyes spinning, too. The orchard went round and round, the sky wheeled over and under her; the whole world was spinning. Sarah felt sick.

Suddenly, it was over. The ground was solid under her feet. Her eyes were free again. Then the creature spoke. His voice was faint and papery, like a rustling in the leaves, but Sarah could understand him.

"Hello, Sarah," he said. "My name is Bix."

"Pleased to meet you, Bix," said Sarah. (She was a well-trained little princess.) "Welcome to my garden. But how do you know my name?"

"I looked into your mind, to learn how to communicate with you. I'm sorry if it made you dizzy."

"Who are you?" she asked. "Are you magic? Are you an alien? Do you come from Mars?"

"No," said Bix. "I'm a dinosaur."

"But there are no dinosaurs any more!"

"I know," said Bix. "I have no mother." His tail sagged to the ground for a second, looking like a piece of fat pink spaghetti, then it stood straight up in the air. "Maybe you can be my mother?"

"No," said Sarah. "I'm not a dinosaur. But I can be your friend."

"Thank you, Sarah. I need a friend. I'm lonely here. And I'm cold. And hungry."

"What do dinosaurs eat?"

"Well, some nice juicy dragonflies would be nice. Or water lilies with frogs on top. Or...but I don't see anything around here. Not even a banana tree. Bananas are healthy."

"I've got bananas in the castle," said Sarah. Why don't we go there? It's warm inside, too."

So Sarah led Bix through the orchard, and around the rhododendrons, into the bare rose garden. When they got to the gate to the castle lawns, she stopped. "What are we going to tell the grown-ups?" she said. "They'll call the newspapers, and the scientists. They'll take you to a lab and poke you full of holes. The papparazzi will be all over us. You'll have to go on TV. Do you want to go on TV?"

"No, no. Can't I just stay quietly with you?" Bix's tail flipped around to hide his head. He peeked out from under the cherry-red tip. "I don't want to go to a lab, either. Help me, please!"

"I don't know," Sarah said. "There are grown-ups everywhere." She leaned on the gate and looked at Bix for a long time. Across the lawn, a clock chimed. Nine times; time for breakfast. She would have to go in soon, before they came looking for her. 

"I don't know," she said again. "Could you pretend to be a toy?"

"Like this?" Bix said. He let his tail droop and his knees sag. 

"Yeah. Except for your face; can you make your eyes look like plastic?"

Bix opened his eyes wide and crossed them slightly.

"Perfect!" said Sarah. "Whenever you see a grown-up, don't move, and look like that. I think it will work. Now let's go, it's late."

They went out onto the lawn and towards the castle. Not to the front door, where the butler would be watching; not to the side door where Sarah's lady's maid waited for her; past the double doors off the parking lot where the lawyers rushed in and out with cell phones at their ears; around the corner, past the kitchen doors where the cooks would be dashing around with steaming dishes of scrambled eggs and trays of buttered toast; past the gardener's entrance; past the garages; back, farther back, to a small forgotten door, where the weeds pushed through the cracks in the walk. 

Nobody had used this door for a hundred years: it was the door to the dungeons. Nobody but Sarah: she had discovered it last summer, and found the key, a great shaft of rusty iron hanging on a hook. It had taken a long time to unlock the door, and she had left it that way; as if she knew that someday she would need a secret entrance to the castle.

Now she pushed it hard, with two hands. The wood was swollen with winter dampness, and the door stuck at first, then it opened, creaking, into a dark passageway. Inside, with the door shut, it was pitch black, but Sarah knew the way, and Bix came along behind, holding the hem of her jacket in his mouth. Straight ahead they went, then around a corner to a large stone room surrounded by cells with heavy iron bars. Tiny windows in the cells let in a cobwebby daylight. On the other side of the room, stone steps led up, around a corner, up again into a black corridor. At the end, Sarah stopped.

"Now," she said, "I think I'll carry you. Pretend you're a toy." She picked Bix up --"Oof! You're heavy," she said -- and opened a door into a hallway with lights, and linoleum on the floor. Voices came from an open door at the end, but Sarah turned off, up another flight of stairs, down another hall, across a marble lobby, up more stairs, wide and carpeted. Down the next hallway, two girls in white aprons came out of a door, carrying rumpled sheets and towels. They curtsied when they saw Sarah, and went away swiftly. Sarah pushed the door open.

Sarah's room was full of stuffed toys; teddies on the armchairs, Barbies around a three-story dollhouse, jungle animals on a shelf over the computer, Winnie the Pooh on the bed with Paddington, and a huge floppy dog on the rug. Bix would fit right in. While Sarah went to breakfast, he settled down in front of the fireplace, warming his toes and eating bananas from a bowl he found on Sarah's night stand. Luckily, he ate the peels, too, because he'd just finished the second banana, and was deciding whether to try a peach or an orange, when the door opened, and a woman pushed a big vacuum cleaner into the room. He barely had time to freeze, and make his plastic-eyed face, before she saw him.

"Another doll," she said. "What does she want with another doll? She's got too many already."  And she picked up Bix by the tail -- he blinked, but she didn't notice -- and threw him into a box in the closet, on top of a heap of Mickey Mouse dolls. Then she slammed the door and left him in the dark, listening to the rumble of the vacuum, then to the silence.

Of course, Sarah rescued him when she came back from breakfast. She had a bun in her pocket, with a slice of ham in the middle. The ham was good, but Bix couldn't eat the bread; it was too dry, like old moss. He had just taken a bite of an orange, when Sarah heard her mother's voice in the hallway, and "Quick!" she said, "Hide under the bed! Mamma can't see you; she'll want to know who gave you to me." And she crammed him under the bed, orange and all.

The queen didn't leave until Sarah's governess came to do schoolwork with her. Then the lady's maid came, to call Sarah to lunch. While she was gone, the chamber maid came to dust. After lunch, the governess returned, then the lady's maid to dress Sarah for dinner, then someone to tend to the fire, then the king to tuck Sarah in for the night. Bix spent most of the day under the bed, trying not to move, even though his neck was stiff and his tail went to sleep.

The next day wasn't much better, nor the next, nor the next. But Bix learned to hide in the closet, with the door open only a crack, and Sarah put fruit and sandwich meats in a basket on the bottom shelf for him. And he was warm, and dry -- it was raining hard most of the time outside. And at night, after everyone in the castle was in bed, he could tiptoe out and climb under the quilts with Sarah, and they could whisper together until she fell asleep.

"What was it like in the egg, Bix?" Sarah asked. "Can you remember?"

"Just dark; dark and warm. But I was asleep most of the time."

"How big will you be when you grow up?"

"I don't know."

"My governess gave me a book about dinosaurs. She says they all died of cold."

"So would I, if I wasn't in here with you."

"I'm glad I found you, Bix."

"So am I."

December came; the rain turned to sleet, then to snow. The lawns and the rose garden and the orchard were buried deep, and the fountain froze. Bix had never seen snow, so Sarah opened her window one night, and Bix stuck his head out. "It's beautiful," he said after a while, "but I'm..." His eyes closed and he laid his head on the snowy windowsill. Sarah pulled him in quickly, and warmed him up at the fire, wrapped in her softest blanket.

"I'm cold-blooded," he said when he woke up. "I would freeze out there."

"We'll go out in the summertime," said Sarah.

But it seemed that they wouldn't be able to wait until the summer. Bix was growing. He was just a baby dinosaur, and he had a lot of growing to do. Every day he was bigger. And hungrier. 

"What an appetite Princess Sarah has lately!" said the cook.

"Sarah, my pet, you must have a hollow leg!" said her father the king.

But though Sarah carried up both pockets full of meat after every meal, and ordered bowls of oranges and bananas, and huge basins of popcorn (Bix liked it with chili powder) Bix never got enough. And he was getting too big to hide under the bed. Once he got the hiccups when the queen was in the room, and the whole bed bounced so, that Sarah had to pretend to be having a coughing fit. Then she had to take a horrible-tasting medicine for a week.

In the closet, Bix hid himself under the Mickey Mouse dolls. They couldn't take the risk of the chambermaid seeing him anymore, because who ever heard of a shiny, multi-coloured, plastic-eyed, dinosaur doll that grew? 

"We have to talk to a grown-up," whispered Sarah one night. Bix was on the floor beside her bed; he didn't fit under her covers any more.

"But they'll put me on TV."

"And all the scientists will poke at you. I know, but what else can we do?"

"When is summer coming?"

"Not for a long time. It's not even Christmas yet."

Bix laid his head on Sarah's pillow and she put an arm around his neck. The firelight flickered on the tears on Sarah's cheeks.

Suddenly she sat up. "I know!" she said, too loudly. "I know," she whispered. "There's one grown-up who can help. And he won't tell anyone. I know he won't!" She kissed Bix on the nose, and lay down again. "Go to sleep, Bix," she said. "Everything's going to be fine."

The next morning, before breakfast, Sarah wrote a letter. "Dear Santa," she wrote, "I need to talk to you. I have a problem and I need your help. Please come to my room in the castle on Christmas Eve. I'll be waiting for you. Love, Sarah." She thought a minute, and added a P.S.: "I don't need any presents. Please come and talk to me." She folded the letter and put it in an envelope and addressed it to Santa Claus, North Pole. When she went downstairs, she gave the letter to the butler. 

"Send this by courier. It's urgent," she said.

"Immediately, Your Highness," he answered.

Now you know and I know that Santa is very careful not to be seen on Christmas Eve.  I'm sure Sarah knew it, too, but that's how she knew he would understand Bix's problem. Santa has never let any scientist examine his sleigh or his reindeer; he could protect Bix. 

On Christmas Eve, Sarah's mother, the queen, and Sarah's father, the king, came up to hang her stocking over the fireplace in her room. She had her own tree, just a small one, hung with many coloured glass balls, purple and pink, neon blue and green, and a deep cherry-red, in honour of Bix, although she couldn't tell her parents that. Her mother the queen read the Christmas story, and her father the king sang Silent Night and all the verses of Good King Wenceslaus. (He couldn't hold a tune, but since he was the king, no-one had ever told him.) And all the time, Bix stood scrunched as small as he could make himself in the closet. He was so big now that Sarah had to push hard to shut the closet door. Finally, they set out the cookies and milk for Santa Claus, and tucked Sarah into bed.

"Now go to sleep quickly, so Santa can come," her father said.

"Yes, papa," said Sarah.

As soon as they had gone downstairs, Sarah popped out of bed and went to open the closet door. "Whew!" said Bix. "I was suffocating in there!"

"For the last time," said Sarah.

Then they sat down to wait. They waited and waited. "Don't let me go to sleep," said Sarah. The clock ticked. The fire died down, and they waited.

"He's not coming," said Bix.

"Just wait," said Sarah.

And when the last spark had gone from the grate, and Sarah's eyes were closing even though she kept pinching herself, there was a scuffling noise overhead, and a swooshing in the chimney, and a thump! of big boots on the bricks, and Santa stepped into the room.

"Now, Sarah, what's the trouble?" he said.

"It's Bix," said Sarah.

Santa looked at him. Bix was as tall as Santa now, and bigger around even than Santa's big belly. "I see," said Santa. "Hmm." He walked around to look at Bix from the other side. "Can you hold your breath?" he asked.

"For a few minutes, I can," said Bix.

"Well, Sarah," said Santa, "I have an opening for a toy maker at the North Pole. Bix would be perfect for the job."

"But it's cold there! He'll freeze!"

"Not in my workshops, deep underground. It's warm and bright, and there's lots of room for a young hungry dinosaur. And games and dancing, and plenty of company, elves and reindeer, Mrs. Claus and I. How about it, Bix? Will you go with me?"

"I'll miss you, Sarah."

"I'll never forget you, Bix." Sarah put her arms around his neck, and cried a bit onto his purple scales. Bix wrapped his tail around her and hugged her tightly. Then he let her go. 

"I'm ready, sir," he said.

"Hold your breath now," Santa said. He put his hand on Bix's blue head and gave a nod. Whoosh! Bix was gone. Whoosh! Sarah was alone. There was a thump and a bump on the rooftop, and then silence. Sarah went to bed and cried herself to sleep.

Sarah was very quiet that Christmas. There were presents: a pearl necklace from her father, the Narnia books from her mother, and mountains of chocolates and games and art supplies from the governess, the butler, the lady's maid, the cook, and the chambermaids. She thanked everybody politely, and sat looking out the window at the snow.

"What's wrong with Sarah?" asked her father.

"The princess has lost her appetite," said the cook.

"Don't you like your presents, Sarah?" asked her mother.

"Yes, mamma," said Sarah. She picked up the first Narnia book and pretended to read. But the blue cover reminded her of Bix, and the tears in her eyes made the letters blurry. 

Three days later, Sarah was sitting at her window, waiting for summer to come, when her lady's maid came to tell her there was a parcel for her in the mail, and his majesty the king desired that she come downstairs to open it. In his office, her father handed her a letter, postmarked at the North Pole. She tore it open, quickly.

North Pole,

December 25,

Dear Sarah,

 I must be getting old. I forgot to fill your stocking last night. Please accept my apologies.  I am sending your present in tomorrow's mail. I hope it is what you wanted.

We are all well here at the North Pole; a little tired after last night's work, but cheerful. I have a new toy maker here, called Bix. He sends his love.

Until next year,


Sarah's father, the king, read the letter over Sarah's shoulder, and wondered. Sarah's mother, the queen, read the letter over her other shoulder. She wondered, too.

"Is there a parcel?" Sarah asked.

A security guard came over and gave her a package. He had been checking it over thoroughly. He had never seen a package from the North Pole before, and you couldn't be too careful.

Sarah ripped off the brown paper, and the pink and purple wrapping paper. Inside was a cell phone. A cell phone? Her own cell phone? Who would she call?

"Was that what you wanted, Sarah?" her mother asked.

"I guess so, mamma," Sarah said.

That night, after Sarah was in bed, her phone rang. "Hello?" she said.

"Hello, Sarah, it's me, Bix."

"Bix? Where are you?"

"In Santa's workshop. We get free long distance from here; Santa says I can call you every day. Did you have a good Christmas?"

"I was lonely," Sarah said. "But not now; never any more."  

Susannah Anderson, 2012

Saturday, November 26, 2022


Let's go back a few years. A lifetime, almost. When I was a child some 70-something years ago, we lived on the far coast of Nootka Island on a narrow strip of flat land above the high tide line. Behind us, the mountain rose steeply, Douglas-Fir clad, unexplored. To the right, a couple more houses, the abandoned remains of a fish cannery, an old dock. That was it. That was the “town”.

On our left, beyond my bedroom, on stilts above the creek, the forest was a green wall. We kids crossed the creek on a fallen log. On the other bank salal bushes made an impenetrable barrier, but another fallen log, this one hollow, tunnelled through. We crawled through on hands and knees, and emerged into a dark, open space, the roof far overhead supported by wide, brown, bark-covered pillars. I called it the cathedral.

My brothers ran ahead, shouting, crossing the small promontory to the shore beyond. There, an islet, a pile of bare rock topped with sun-baked moss and a few trees, was accessible at low tide. There we would run around aimlessly, poke into tide pools, climb the rocks and trees, my brothers shouting all the while. Once we carried lunch and had a picnic.

But often, I let the boys go on and stopped in the cathedral. Here were ancient monsters, trees so tall and wide that they shut out the sunlight, leaving the area in permanent shade. Nothing grew here but the trees, the moss, and evergreen ferns.

I would find a mossy log and sit. Just listening. To the silence, the deep, heavy silence of growing things, occasionally punctuated by a laggard raindrop, filtered through the moss far overhead. Plop!

The forest smelled of wet wood, of sharp-scented moss, of musty ferns. Outside, there was always the smell of salt water, ancient fish-scented lumber; here none of that penetrated. All was green and brown; those colours still bring back the scent of that sanctuary fo me.

Virgin forest: no saws had bitten into this bark, no chainsaws had broken the silence. Looking at Google maps today, I see that the area now is criss-crossed by logging roads, with large blank, clear-cut spaces. The little creek now enters a muddy estuary. I can't find our house. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022


 Sometime in the fall, when every day was grey and wet, when the coal-oil lamps were lit as soon as supper was over and the eaves dripped all through the long night, the weekly boat delivered a spark of colour; the Christmas catalogue from Sears-Roebuck, one per household. Two inches thick, smelling of fresh ink, glossy and bright. The Wish Book, Dad called it.

The first half of the book was the clothes section. Women’s clothes first, starting with the cover; the most elegant lady in a long coat. Gloves and hat and jewelry; city clothes, Sunday morning clothes. Inside, more of the same, then housedresses, jackets, shoes, purses. Underwear, pages and pages of it. Corsets with whalebones, with hooks and eyes, with laces. Stockings and garter belts. I studied it all carefully. Someday I would be a woman and wear things like that. It all looked very uncomfortable, though.

Men’s clothes came next; I flipped the pages quickly. Children’s clothes; little girls in perfect ringlets wearing birthday-party dresses. On to the tools, the washing machines, the dishes.

And finally, the toys. A dozen or so pages near the back of the catalogue. Dolls and looms for the girls. And the important part, the purpose of it all: the boys’ section. Trucks. Black metal trains that shot real sparks. Meccano. Tinkertoy. Microscopes. Ah!

In these pages I would find Christmas presents for my brothers. And wish. I knew I would get doll clothes or a loom or a sweater, as usual. But just look at that chemistry set! Just read the list of items in that box! What I could do with that!

I read every word of that toy section, even to the descriptions of the extras: “XY94357 – Batteries for the XY94356, set of four. $0.99.”

Eventually the order form was filled out, with the code numbers double-checked, the totals added up. I passed the catalogue on to Dave, reluctantly.

When the 1951 catalogue came, Mom told us to just look at it, but not to order anything; we would be getting money for Christmas, and we would go to the city – to the States! – to buy our own presents. She gave me $5.00, all for myself. I folded the bill into an inch-wide square and put it into the coin purse I used for my candy money at camp. But what would I buy with it? There was nothing in the girls’ section of the catalogue that appealed to me. I had my doll. She was old and half-bald, but I didn’t need another. What for? I had two looms already. And I couldn’t buy boy stuff; people would laugh. I checked the prices of Meccano sets, though.

In December, we took the boat down to Vancouver. We did the normal things: ate in Chinatown, visited some people in stuffy houses, waited for Mom and Dad in church offices. At a lot where a row of pointy flags flapped in the drizzle, Dad bought a car.

And then it was Christmas Day, and there was no more business to be attended to, and we had eaten pie and pickles and cranberry sauce in a brown house with a monkey tree in the yard,  and we were free at last. We crossed the border with the last shred of daylight.

It was snowing when we drove into Seattle. I rolled down my window and caught some on my sleeve until Mom made me shut the window again. Dad was driving slowly, looking for a motel.

It’s Christmas,” he said. “We’re going to find a place with television.”

I thought he was joking at first, until he passed several motels without stopping. And then, there it was; “Television in all the rooms,” the sign said. And below, in blinking blue neon, the magic word, “Vacancy”. Dad pulled into the driveway.

We sat on the beds in the semi-dark, watching. I had never seen a television before; it was like seeing a filmstrip without the projector. Except that the picture was much smaller. Greyer, too. And there was something wrong; the voices were staticky and snowflakes blurred the image. “It’s the weather,” Dad said. “Can’t be fixed. I’m sorry; should I turn it off?”

Mom said yes; we kids said no. The television stayed on.

The movie was a story about toys who had come alive. Tin soldiers marched and saluted, stuffed animals rushed about, a ballerina doll got off her pedestal and danced down the street. There were doll-house castles with towers and drawbridges, prancing wooden horses, a marching band. And around it all the snow swirled. At times, a deep fog would sweep over the screen, a fog that permitted only glimpses of moving figures, a flash of bare arm here, a carriage wheel there.

The voices were no clearer. A soldier talked excitedly with the ballerina; I could hear his tone but not his words. Trumpets blared, then faded in mid-note. A town crier shouted – I couldn’t make out what.

I couldn’t follow the story. But it didn’t matter; it was still wonderful, magical. Just right, really; why should mere mortals expect to see clearly into this other world?

The weather worsened, outside our window and on the screen. Just before the blizzard struck, I got a final glimpse of the ballerina back on her stand, on the tip of her left toe, arms over her head, the right foot pointing at the horizon. She was spinning slowly.

She danced through my dreams that night.

The next morning, Boxing Day, we went shopping. “Everything’s on sale,” Mom said. “We’ll get really nice things this year.”

In a store where the boys bought trucks, I found a new wig for my doll, marked down to four dollars. Back at home, Mom helped me glue it onto her head. I combed the hair back and tied it in a bouncy pony-tail just like the one the ballerina wore.


Connie opens her eyes and watches the sunlight dancing on the rug. This is her home, her green rocker, her own teapot and cup.   But will they send her away?  At her age, where can she go?  

The wind blows in the cedars; so lonesome, always.  Her afghan has slipped; her knees are cold.  Where is Peggy?

Her brother is sitting in the wing chair; very dapper in his civvies.  "...demobbed two days ago;  I'm taking the train back East," he was saying.  "Good to see you looking so well, my dear.  I see your husband takes good care of you."

"And Peggy," Connie says, "Do you know Peggy, my daughter?  Can you stay for tea?  There are biscuits and strawberry jam."  She reaches for the hand-bell on her tray, rings loudly.  The children file in, shucking off raincoats and rubbers.  "Good morning, children, good morning, good morning!"

"Morning, Mrs. White," they repeat, dutifully.  A first-grader has brought a grubby fistful of dandelions.  Peggy will put them in a glass. 

Peggy is in the doorway, drying her reddened hands on a tea-towel.  She should take better care of herself; her grey hair needs cutting, and there are dark circles under her eyes.  "Did you ring?" she asks. "I'm making some tea and sandwiches, be ready in a few minutes.  Salmon OK?"

"Strawberry jam.  I want strawberry jam."

"OK, a strawberry jam sandwich.  Do you want salmon, too?"

"No. No salmon, strawberry jam.  And tea.  And my knees are cold."  Peggy picks up the blanket from the floor, tucks it around Connie's knees, and bustles off without a word.  Why is she so rushed?

"It's all these clocks," says mother.  "Tick, tick, get up, tick tick, gobble your breakfast, tick tick, run out the door, tick tick, run, run ,run."  She rests her feet on a horsehair footstool.  "More haste, less speed, I always say."

Connie's clock doesn't tick; the hands just go around silently.  There's a battery in back, so she never has to remember to wind it up.  Peggy got her one of those new-fangled clocks with no face, just numbers that keep changing,  but it made her nervous and she gave it away.  There's no clock here in the porch; when the sunlight  touches the geranium, Peggy always brings her lunch.  So reliable, dear Peggy.

Her grandson is pouring tea.  He never puts in enough sugar.  Where is Peggy? 

Ah, here she comes, with a tray of sandwiches and a folding chair. The salmon sandwiches look good, cut in tiny triangles and garnished with fresh parsley.  Connie has one, after all.  Peggy puts an extra spoonful of sugar in her tea.

The sun has gone behind a cloud and Connie shivers.  She must have nodded off; her tea is cold. She rings the bell and her grandson comes. Handsome young man; looks just like Father. "It's chilly, I'll take you in," he says, reaching for the afghan.

"No.  I like it on the porch."  

Father leans over her.  "And how's my darling girl today?"  She loves the smell of him:  wool and cigar smoke and a faint memory of green soap.  "Busy day today in the hospital, I almost forgot your errand."  He places a brown-paper package in her hands.  She tears at the string, folds back the brown paper and layers of pale tissue.  Underneath is a mound of soft wool.  "Let's just tuck you in," Father says.  Hands caress her shoulders.

"Feel warmer?" says her grandson.  "Looks like the sun is coming out again, too!"

It is: the geraniums blaze in the slanting rays; flowers red as her school sweater, scented leaves brilliantly green.  Mother always loved geraniums.  And hollyhocks.  Why does nobody have hollyhocks any more?  Connie used to make little princess dolls out of the flowers; such beautiful flowing pink skirts they had.  She wore a pink dress, too, at the Sunday School picnic that day, the day Doug first walked her home.

Doug.  Walking down the lane, holding her hand.  Over the breakfast coffee, "Any more of that plum jam, my dear?"  Sitting beside her in church, singing just slightly off key.  Driving; right hand resting casually on the gearshift, left elbow out the window, rain or shine.  Joking, always joking, even when the chemotherapy melted away his flesh and scattered his hair on the wind.  "They'll pay me big bucks, now," he said.  "Before and after photos.  Eat all you want, lose 25 pounds!"

"Mom!  Are you crying?"  Peggy is kneeling beside Connie's rocker, holding her hand.

"No, I'm fine.  It's just the sun; it's too bright in my eyes."

"Here, let me turn the chair a bit.  There.  That's better."  

She has brought the afternoon pills.  And the supplement.  Ugh.  Delicious! says the label, but did the advertisers ever taste it?  Father pours out a big spoonful of castor oil.  "It tastes like the devil, but it will give you strong bones.  Open up!" he says.  Connie opens her mouth obediently.  Peggy places a pill on her tongue and holds a glass of cold water to her lips.  "Down the hatch!" says Father. She swallows.

"Good girl!" says Peggy "One more, and we're done! That's it!  Now the milkshake. You like that, anyhow." Connie smiles insincerely over the rim of her glass.  

While Connie drinks, Peggy sits and rests, rubbing her neck with both hands.  Before she takes the empty glass, she rearranges Connie's coverlet, tenderly, as though she were tucking in a baby.  

Connie is dozing again when a toddler pulls at her sleeve.  Peggy?  No, Peggy is grown up now.  Peggy’s daughter?  No, her granddaughter.  "Ganny," she says. "Ganny. Up."  Connie winces as the baby scrambles over her knees, and twists around to snuggle under the coverlet.  Within minutes, she is asleep.  

"She has your smile," says Doug.  He brushes the child's hair off her face with a careful finger.  "Two beautiful women!"  

"Flatterer!" laughs Connie.  He looks healthy and tanned, salt-and-pepper hair slightly tousled.  Not a trace of the cancer that killed him.  He stretches out a hand to her, inviting her to walk in the garden.

"Doug?" Connie apologizes.  "I can't go with you.  I'm old, I need a walker. Doug, I'm an old lady, I can't stay awake, and if they send me away, where will I go?"  She is sobbing now.

"Shhh! Don't cry, dearest, we'll be all right as long as we're together."  He always says that.  

"As long as we're together."  Connie smiles at him, comforted.  She rests her cheek on Doug's tweedy shoulder.

 "Peggy," Connie asks at bedtime, "am I too much work for you?"

"Of course not, Mom!  Hands up.  Good.  Now let's get this nightie on."

"I should go to a nursing home."

"This is your home.  You belong here, Mom.  OK, now, under the covers.  Let me fix that pillow." Peggy straightens the pillow, pulls the blankets up another inch and dims the light.  She bends and kisses Connie on the forehead.  "Gonna be sunny again tomorrow.  Have a good sleep."  At the door she turns back, smiling.  "We'll make it, Mom.  As long as we're together."

She leaves, but Mother sits on the slipper chair at the foot of the bed.  She is singing a lullaby.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Set of One

You have to understand; I wasn't like the other girls. Growing up in the forties, I was expected to play with dolls, keep my clothes clean, and scream at the sight of a snake. Instead, I worked on my brother's Meccano set and ripped my dresses climbing trees. I went frog-catching with my brothers and filled my pockets with snakes.

My curiosity was unfeminine. I wanted to know things. I took clocks apart. I read about engines and dissected sea cucumbers. I came home smelling of fish. Not a proper girl, at all.

When I was in grade six, we moved to WhiteRock. We bought a house on Thrift Street, close to the centre of town; a house on a regular street, with neighbours on both sides and cars going by. Except for Christmas visits to the family in Toronto, I had never lived in town before.

It was hard to make friends in school that year. At recess and lunch hour, the boys played rough-and-tumble games; I often saw my brother Dave in the scrum, racing after a ball, muddy and scruffy-looking, with his jacket askew and his hair tousled. We girls stood around on the edges of the schoolyard, talking, sometimes taking turns skipping while the others chanted skipping rhymes. ""One, Two, Three, Out goes You." I was no good at skipping; my feet wouldn't behave. I was always "out".

Girls and boys in town generally ignored each other. Outside the classroom, we had no activities in common. Boys wouldn't skip, and girls couldn't kick a ball. I watched the boys at play; the other girls turned their backs.

One lunch hour early in the school year, a football rolled into the tall grass near our skipping place. The boy that came after it found a garter snake, besides. He held it up, yelling, "Look what I caught!" The snake curled around his arm, and he shook it off, holding it away from his body. Even writhing in its attempts to escape, it reached almost to the ground. I wished I had found it.

The girls in the skipping line-up saw the snake next. They screamed and scattered. The snake catcher turned in our direction. "Hey, girls!" he taunted, "Look at my nice snake!" The girls ran, squealing, leaving the skipping rope abandoned in the dust like a second, longer snake. I stood my ground, but the boy ignored me and chased the other girls, waving the snake.

He couldn't run as fast as the girls because the snake kept getting tangled around his legs, so finally he stopped, wound up his arm like a baseball pitcher, and tossed the snake high into the air. The girls zigged and zagged, pushing each other out of the way, still shrieking. The snake fell short.

I saw my opportunity. I ran and grabbbed the snake before it slithered under the fence. It was the fattest one I had ever caught; it was a pity to lose it, but I spun it around my head and threw it back at the boys.

A snake on the ground or in the hand is a different matter than a flying snake. The boys ran out from under it. Some of them even yelled.

"Sissies!" I shouted. "Babies!" I turned to join the rest of the girls.

Daydreams develop fast. I was already relishing my rôle as brave heroine, recipient of the other girls' admiration and gratitude. Now they would be friends with me. I admit that I swaggered a bit as I walked towards them. They all spoke at once.

"You touched the snake!"


"Go away!"

"Don't touch us!"


So it was that the students were divided into three sets: girls, boys, and me, a set of one. For a long time, I wandered alone, collecting chestnuts under the trees, enticing squirrels with crumbs from my lunch, listening for seagulls. Oh, to be at home -- my old home -- watching the gulls squabble on the beach, the empty beach!

The football season ended, and the boys turned to other pursuits. One noon hour, I found Dave and a few other boys kneeling in the dirt, shooting marbles. I stood and watched. No-one noticed me until, when a fresh circle was drawn for a new game, I said, "Can I play?"

Most of the boys looked at me strangely, but Dave just moved over to let me kneel beside him. He didn't think of me as an outsider nor, probably, even as a girl. One of the others started to protest, then thought better of it. Dave lent me a handful of marbles from his bag, to start with. "The cats-eye is a good shooter," he told me.

It was, and so was I. I won, over and over. "Beginner's luck," the boys called it that day, but after that I played every day and won a fair share of the games. It probably helped that I practiced obsessively at home, playing against Dave with the agreement that any marbles I won, I would give back. Any he won, he kept. Still, my bag was always full.

So I won a grudging respect from those few boys. On our knees in the mud, we were equals. Otherwise, they ignored me, like everyone else did.

The one other positive thing about that school year was my teacher. A man, young, brown-eyed, casual. He laughed easily and often. He sat on his desk. Once, wandering about the classroom, he got talking to the kid next to me and sat on my desk. He was wearing a brown tweed jacket, unbuttoned, and smelled of wool and tobacco. I pictured him at home with a pipe and a mournful hound, relaxing by the fireplace, reading Sherlock Holmes. I don't know if he was a good teacher; I do know I did my best work to earn his approval.

One afternoon, Mr. Donaldson assigned us an exercise in our spelling books, then said, "I have to be out of the classroom for a few minutes. You are to stay in your seats and work. No talking. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" In unison.

"And anyone I find out of their seat when I come back, will stay after school for half an hour. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

He left, and I set to work on my spelling, writing sentences out in my best handwriting, careful to keep my lines straight and my hands off the page until the ink dried. I could hear smothered giggles behind me. A desk scraped on the floor. I didn't turn around.

Then a hand clamped on my ankle, and someone yanked at my shoe. I kicked, but the shoe was gone. I turned around in my seat. The shoe was skittering down the aisle. One of the boys in back fielded it and waved it over his head.

"Susie, come get your shoe!"

"Give it back!"

"Come get it!"

"We're not allowed; give it back!"

Of course he wouldn't send the shoe back. I argued and pleaded. All the boys laughed. The girls looked uncomfortable, but kept quiet. I begged. Big joke.

I finally had to go down the aisle to get my shoe, but then the kids started to play catch with it, with me in the middle trying to snag it as it flew past. When Mr. Donaldson walked in, the last catcher kicked the shoe my way, leaving me standing there with no excuse.

The teacher was nice about it; I had to stay after school, since that was what he had said, but he didn't scold. At three thirty, he let me go. It didn't seem that long. I had spent the time looking at the map behind the desk, wondering how they had picked those colours for those countries. Why were the commonwealth countries pink?

The walk home was peaceful. No brothers to watch out for, no other kids to avoid. I had the streets to myself. I stopped on the way to look at flowers and to pet a cat. There was a dog in one house behind a sturdy fence. He always barked at the kids. Today, since no-one was watching, I stood and barked back at him until he was so mad there was white froth around the edges of his mouth. I detoured a block out of my route to look at a big house half-hidden behind ragged broom hedges. I wondered, again, who lived there; I never saw any movement around the house. Maybe it was haunted.

When I got home, Mom was waiting in the kitchen. "Why did you have to stay after school?" she asked.

"I don't know." I was still thinking about that haunted house; school wasn't important any more.

"You don't know? You don't know? What are you hiding?" Oops.

"I mean, nothing, I got in trouble for nothing."

Too late. Mom didn't believe me, even when I tried to explain. She accused me of lying and gave me three good whacks on the hand with the kindling. When I still insisted that all I had done was try to get my shoe back, she increased the punishment. I was sent to my room until suppertime. No reading, not even school books. No cat for company.

I lay on my bed under the eaves. I permitted myself to cry a little; it wasn't fair! Outside, the boys were shouting in the maple trees. I had to stay here, looking at the boring white ceiling and the plain white walls and my empty bookshelf. A tiny window, too high to see more than grey sky. Cracked and worn linoleum over warped floorboards  -- hmm. It would be a challenge to try and shoot a marble straight over that surface. Good practice. I dug the bag out of my jacket pocket and chose a shooter and a target. I had a whole hour before suppertime.

Stories of Childhood
Susannah Anderson, 2008

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Legend of San Pascual Bailón

Way back, in the 17th century, in a monastery in the colonial city, Puebla de Los Angeles (City of the Angels), young brother Pascual worked in the kitchen. Being the youngest, he was assigned the lowliest duties, washing and chopping and fetching. And they kept him hopping!

Not that he minded; he was a cheerful, bouncy boy, and hopping was to his taste. So much so that they called him El Bailón, the Dancer.

One day the whole monastery was in an uproar; the Archbishop was coming to the city and would be visiting the monastery. The brothers were cleaning and polishing, airing rooms and practicing their music. In the kitchen, all hands were busy, peeling, chopping, grinding, tasting, stuffing, frying. Pascual was appointed the task of seeing to the wide cazuela, as wide as his arm was long, where a couple of turkeys simmered in a delicately-flavoured broth. His job was to fan the charcoal flames under the pot and occasionally to give the broth a stir. He felt deeply honoured by this; elated, too. He sang as he worked, and danced with the rhythm of his fanning.

Alas! He was too excited; in one of his triumphant waves of the long wooden spoon over the pot, he hit a rickety shelf on the wall above the stove. It tipped and shook.

And all the spices, the ground chiles, the chocolate for the archbishop's evening drink, the chopped nuts and seeds, the stale bread cubes and the sugar pilones that were kept on that shelf, slipped, slid, and tumbled into the pot. Disaster!

He did his best to fish the biggest pieces out, but the pot was so big, so wide, the broth so hot, the portions of turkey so much in the way, that all he could find were bits of chile stem and a few nuts. When the head cook looked his way, he was lost. He was banned from the kitchen, sent to scrub tiles in the back patio while the cooks tried to rescue the meat.

Impossible. The archbishop was at the gates. They did the next best thing, strained the new sauce and presented it with a flourish and desperate hopes.

And the archbishop was enchanted; he pronounced this "mole"* the best dish he had ever tasted!

So Pascual, all these years hence, is now called upon by every Mexican cook as she starts her grinding and toasting for the Christmas meal; "San Pascual Bailón, fan my fire!**"

* Mole Poblano. Recipe.
** "Atiza mi fogón!"

Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 2007

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The bleeding hearts grew thick beside the hill road. Somehow they clung to the dripping gravel, resisted being swept down, down to the oily ditch, down, down to the stench and rumble of the logging trucks.

It was quiet up on the hill; the Douglas firs whispered into their cloudy pillows, dams of cushiony moss held back the downhill surge of the streams, muffled their chatter.

In the house, Susie held the silence with gentle hands. Raindrops slithered down her windowpane; condensation inside, rain outside. She caught a wandering droplet with a fingertip, tasted it.

A crunch of footsteps on the gravel, a bustle in the mud room, meant Daddy was home. The rain came in with him, hissing on the stove. In the kitchen, the baby crowed, Mom announced, "Supper's ready. Oooh, you're wet!" Miscellaneous thuds and creaks, pots scraping on the stove top, bubbling, clanking, splashing. Daddy stood at the living room door in a cloud of potato-scented steam.

"And where's my little girl tonight?" he shouted. He pretended to search, behind the sofa, under the desk, down the hallway, finally coming back to Susie's chair, feigning surprise. "Well, here she is! Hiding on me, were you?" He tweaked a brown braid playfully, then lifted her, blanket and all, and carried her into the kitchen to install her in her seat at the end of the table. Mom was putting out bowls of vegetables, carrots and creamed corn. The baby banged on his highchair with a spoon. Daddy sang "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," getting all the words wrong.

Later, with supper over, and Susie safely ensconced in her chair again, Daddy helped Mom with the dishes. She could hear them rattling plates, the water running. The baby snored on the rug, sprawled over his toy trucks.

"Cliff asked if we could come down for coffee tonight," Daddy said.

"Nice of him. You go." answered Mom.

"Mary would like to see you. And you haven't been out since Susie...."

"But the doctor said....her heart...." Mom had lowered her voice, but Susie could still make out the words. Her parents didn't imagine how well voices traveled, how thin the walls were. She had heard the doctor, too, even though he had pulled the kitchen door shut behind him.

"...keep her quiet.... hope for the best....possibly...." Afterwards, Mom had gone into the bedroom and Daddy made supper.

"No excitement," said Daddy. "I know. We'll just have coffee, talk, boring grown-up talk. She'll be fine. We'll come home early."

"But the rain......"

"We'll wrap her up. I'll carry her; she's light as a bird."


In the end, they went. Mom bundled Susie up until only her eyes were showing, and Daddy made a chair of his hands for her. She sat with one arm around his neck, and Mom put Daddy's overcoat over them both, buttoned it around them with the empty sleeves dangling down.

"You look like a two-headed sasquatch," Mom said.

From the back porch, the world was grey. The downpour hid the trees, the hill behind, even the corner of the house. Daddy pulled his collar up around Susie's head. His footsteps and Mom's gritted on the stones; all else was silent save for the whispered rustle of raindrops on leaves and branches. Under the overcoat, Susie held tight to Daddy's lapel, heard the thud of his heart, the wheezing intake of his breath.

At the bottom of the hill, the rain drummed on pavement, then on a roof. Daddy's shoes called up hollow echoes from wooden steps. Cliff's voice boomed out, "Here they are, Mary! Come in, come in out of the wet!"

Mom and Daddy sat drinking coffee in Mary's kitchen. The baby woke, and Cliff dandled him on his knee. Susie sat in the living room, watching the flames leap in the fireplace. She held a book Mary had given her, but kept it closed, for later. The burning wood smelled like a summer beach, with the waves crashing and the seagulls crying. Her blanket steamed gently on her knees.

When the coffeepot was empty, Cliff stood by the window with his back to the rain, and played his trombone. With the slide out, it was longer than Susie. He played "Shall We Gather at the River", "When the Saints Go Marching In", "Amazing Grace." He put dozens of extra notes into "Amazing Grace", the trombone slide going in and out, in and out, but he always got back to the tune in time for the next word. The shiny brass made little dancing lights on the window behind him.

"More, please," said Susie.

"I'm all out of breath," said Cliff. "Ok, one more." He played "Onward, Christian Soldiers" twice, once the way they sang it in church, once so fast and fancy that the slide vibrated like the guy wires on the bridge in a storm. His face was red and damp when he finished. "Whew!" he said.

"We better get on home," said Daddy.

At the door, open to the black wet night, Mary touched the baby's cheek, pulled his blanket firmly over his head, back over Mom's shoulder. "G'night all, thanks for coming down," she said. She bent suddenly and kissed Susie's forehead. "G'night." She turned quickly and ran back into the house.

Susie pulled down the collar of Daddy's overcoat so she could peer out at the dark. Rain ran down her neck. The flashlight made a bouncing pool of light, now glancing off rivulets eating away the path, now off dripping rocks, now to the side to find the stream, the cut above it, the ferns and bleeding hearts nodding in the drizzle. Daddy smelled of wet wool.

Stories of Childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 1998

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sleeping with Tarantulas

In response to a question by Bev Wigney: "How many of you are nervous of spiders? ... If you’re bothered by the sight of spiders, do you think it is tied to a particular incident ...?"

I grew up on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There were plenty of spiders, but none were poisonous. Running through the bush, sometimes we would crash through a web and brush the remains off our faces without slowing. No fuss. I even kept a big wolf spider as a pet for a while, feeding him house flies and mosquitoes.

When I was 17, we moved to Mexico. Things were different there; we had to be careful. Once, out camping, Mom picked up a piece of firewood, her hand an inch away from a big black widow. And old-timers told us about tarantulas the size of a plate. Worrisome.

We travelled, those first years, quite a bit. Mom and Dad had "stuff" to do in every town we visited; we kids hung around, keeping out of trouble. It was never boring, although some places were more interesting than others. Several times we visited people living on Lake Tequesquitengo. I loved that; my two brothers and I swam while our parents talked.

The water level of the lake had risen some time not so far past and many lake-shore houses were flooded and abandoned. We went exploring, swimming from one house to another. At one house, the overhang of an old covered patio just barely touched the lake surface. The boys ducked under, and swam in. I could hear them in there, exclaiming excitedly. Dave yelled, "Sue, come here! Come see!" So, of course, I ducked, swam a yard or two, and surfaced.

It was green and dim; all the light was coming up through the water. And in that dimness, I saw that the entire ceiling was covered in enormous black tarantulas. Some, too many, the size of a saucer; the stories were true. Supporting beams came inches from the water, with tarantulas on the bottom. Luckily I had come up under the (slightly) higher ceiling between. I screamed; I couldn't stop myself. Spiders shifted position, reacting to the movement on the water. I froze, treading water, trying to be invisible.

My brothers were a couple of beams over, laughing. Until they saw my face, at least.

The worst of it was that I couldn't swim out. If I ducked and swam, as I had done to enter, what would happen if I misjudged the distance and came up under one of those beams? What would happen if I hit one of those hairy monsters with my head?

But I couldn't just stay there! How long would it be before a spider decided to see if I was edible? The boys swam out, and called to me encouragingly from outside, but I couldn't move. Impossible! I tried to answer them, but my voice cracked, became another scream.

To this day, I have no recollection of the rest. I must have risked it; here I am, not eaten by tarantulas. But the rest of that swim is a complete blank.

And for the next decade, if a spider touched me (even a toy spider), I screeched and jumped away. A black spider on my floor would keep me out of the house until someone had killed it.

Another story, some 10 years later:

We were travelling with my younger brother and his family, down south, near Veracruz, the two families crammed together in his van. We arrived late one evening on a beach; it was too late to find a hotel in the village, so we would sleep in the van. Fine. But it was steamy and crowded in there, with 4 sweaty adults and 7 squirming kids. I couldn't breathe.

I dragged my sleeping bag outside and laid it out on the sand. The breeze from the water was cool; moonlight twinkled on the wavelets. I lay awake, listening to the rustle of palm fronds.

And then, another sound. Scritch-scritch-scritch-scritch... The sound of something scaly and dry, something like a crab. Or an insect, the large variety. I sat up and saw them; spiders, walking on the sand. Big ones.

The same old dilemma; what to do? Run back to the van, barefoot? Stepping on spiders all the way? No!

I pulled the sleeping bag over my head, zipping it up, tucking it tightly under me, holding it close, with only the merest crack for breathing. I lay as still as I could, so as not to merit investigation. Somehow, eventually, I slept.

I woke; I could hear voices and see light through the fabric of the sleeping bag. I unzipped it and looked around. The sun was up, the beach was clean. No spiders. I got up and joined the family.

Later on, preparing to leave, I picked up the sleeping bag to shake it out and roll it. Underneath, a big tarantula had taken refuge from the sun. He scuttled off.

I had been sleeping on him ... how long?

And that was the beginning of the end of that 10-year arachnophobia. I like spiders again, even make pets of them. At the moment, there are two in a bouquet of wild flowers on my kitchen table.

No tarantulas, though.

Stories of Mexico
Susannah Anderson, 2007

Monday, July 2, 2012

vagrant thoughts while you sleep

even asleep, you sit upright,
old soldier; hardy, durable,
leaning on no-one

we should have a fire
twin rocking chairs, drowsy dog
afghans for our knees

but those were olden days

we had rockers once
in the slow summer evening
watched sparrows nesting

when the summer comes
we will sit outside
listening to the chickadees

i might read now while you sleep
page through my bird book
making no sound to wake you

earlier, you were shovelling snow
or riding your bike
moving like a youngster

now you sleep

tomorrow in the sunshine …
… we'll go … was i asleep?
you are smiling … peace

© Susannah Anderson, 2008

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Each boat has her own voice. Waiting at dockside, the Bruce purrs; the two exhaust pipes are just at water level and emit a gentle steam sparkling with tiny bubbles, like the upside-down rain we make with baking soda and Kool Aid. Coming across the bay, she talks to herself and to the waves, the words always just beyond the edge of comprehensibility.

Old Mr. Hungerford's putt-putt does just that. Putt-putt-putt-putt: a steady beat underway, slowing to a near-stall as she coasts in to tie up. Putt-pause-putt-pause, then when you think she's stopped, putt-putt.

The Lizzie roars.  Inside the cabin, talking is impossible. Sometimes we shout;  "Where's Georgina?" "What?" "Home!" "Okay!" This last to the pilot, forward beyond the engine block. He pushes on the throttle and the engine bellows. We sit immersed in our own thoughts, tolerating the noise, the stink of hot oil and bilgewater, the steamy damp.

There are no lights aboard the Lizzie, except for the one headlight. Inside, morning and evening, it is pitch dark, except for the occasional beam from a flashlight. The night a rat bites me, I pull the flash from my pocket and turn it on, but it's too late; I don't see the rat, just the two tiny holes in my hand, almost half an inch apart. I don't tell the adults because I know what they will do: give me a series of injections, one a day for twelve days, all of them in my belly. I'd rather get rabies. I am relieved, though, when a month has gone by and I can still drink a glass of water without choking.

When it's not raining, I like to sit outside in the stern. It's always cold, but if I huddle close to the cabin wall, out of the wind, and cram my hands up into my jacket sleeves, I am fine. At least it's quiet. Quieter, anyhow. And the spray smells of salt and seaweed and silver-grey mist.

In the daytimes, going to Tahsis, we cut in close to the land, out of the choppiness at mid-channel. The rocks and trees slip by, half a stone's throw away, silent except for the slap of the waves at their feet. I like to imagine myself scrambling over the shore, picking huckleberries in season -- so big and red they are, hanging there over the banks, unharvested, unseen by anyone but me. Sometimes the sun shines on the cliffs, making the moss look dry and warm, a place to climb to, to sit in a cushiony hollow -- there! that one! -- and examine the tiny moss-flowers and the yellow lichens.

Behind and over it all, the Douglas firs and the cedars make an impenetrable wall. Never has man set foot under those branches; no voices have disturbed their silence. We don't belong there, we are too young; we couldn't bear the heaviness of the slow centuries, of the secret musings and long watchings. And yet I wish: if the boat would only stop, I would go ashore and dare the hidden paths. Maybe.

Most of the year it's too cold and wet to sit outside at night. But in the summer, when the wash glows green with fluorescence, and tiny sparkling stars break away from the prow and rush off into the blackness, when the Big Dipper hangs overhead and the lights of the houses behind us make dancing dotted lines on the crests of the waves, I lean on the side of the boat and sing. No-one inside the Lizzie will hear me over the racket of the engine; I can shout to the stars. Stormy weather songs; "Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me", "Throw out the Lifeline," "Peace, Be Still". Or my night-time favourite: "Could we with ink the ocean fill,.." The sea and the sky and the mountains are already inky.


In the winter storms, a derelict fishing boat washes ashore, half sunken, and comes to ground between the pier and my bedroom window.  I watch her through the early spring, as the waves nudge her one way and another until she is tightly wedged on some unseen gap in the rocks.  At low tide the cabin and the front deck are exposed, slanting towards me, beckoning. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I swim out and clamber aboard.

The cabin is tiny and dark, more from ancient grease than from paint.  My hands stick to the doorjamb. I pick my way to the wheel, sloshing through knee-deep water across broken floorboards, and stand there, pretending to steer. Straight ahead, a forest of tarry pilings underneath the old cannery bars the way. I imagine backing, turning to miss the pier, and heading out to open water. I would go north, just to see what's there; hills and trees I have never seen, islets with no name, lonely cliffs.

There is a smear of pitch on my right arm; my hands, when I turn them palms up, are black. I back gingerly out of the cabin, careful not to touch anything more. The prow deck is clean enough; for the rest of the summer, I use it as my private sun-bathing place.

In October, my little harbour is empty again. Whether the tide broke the wreck up, or she just floated out to sea, I don't know. I never saw her go.


Occasionally we take a trip down the island on the Messenger III, the Shantyman's Mission boat. Down the outside; a stop in Friendly Cove or Ahousat, and a rolling and nose-diving haul  around Estevan Point, where all the adults take to their bunks and I go to join the pilot in his cabin. He makes himself onion sandwiches for lunch; "Settles the stomach," he says. My stomach is fine, but I don't try his sandwiches.

Aboard the Messenger, I mostly stay inside. She is faster than the Lizzie, or even the Bruce; the wind in the stern catches your breath away. But she is bigger, and cleaner, and quieter than any of the other boats I know. Even in the cabin below decks, the bunks are dry. And we can talk, even play games; the engine thrums along in the next room, sounding like someone practicing his bass part for the church choir.

The wall must be well insulated, because when I go through the engine room to the head, the pounding and howling and squealing of the big machine deafens me. Close beside the monster is a narrow walkway, just a metal grid over open bilge and a rail made of lead pipes, too hot to hold onto comfortably. A sizzling water pipe juts out overhead, close enough for me to feel its heat as I pass. Over the rail, massive wheels spin, pistons leap and slam back down, belts whine. A finger in one of those, a stray shoelace; I shy away from the rest of the thought. It is a relief to hide away in the tiny head, to lock down the handle. "Occupied", the label will say on the outside. I stay longer than I need to, putting off the trip back over that trembling bridge.


The Messenger. The Lizzie. My wreck. The Bruce. And I shouldn't forget our school boat, the Donna Dene. Except that she is so forgettable; serviceable and boring. White paint, a boxy cabin, engine, benches, wheel. That's it. A boat to get to school in, to forget your homework in, to sit inside through the rainy months in.

Even the name is a plodder. Donna. No romance. The Messenger, now; the name means something, tells you its mission, to carry the Gospel. The Bruce is named after the Doctor's son, the one that drowned when his boat went down in a storm.

And the Lizzie: an ugly-sounding name, but it speaks of so many things! Elizabeth, like the queen in her blue dress and fat ankles on the front wall of our classroom. Elizabeth II Regina; very elegant. Or the Tin Lizzie, the Model T Ford, probably about as old as our Lizzie, but black instead of streaky white. Or just plain Elizabeth, with a whole list of nicknames to choose from. Betty. Lisa. Beth, like Jo's sister that died in "Little Women". Eliza. Ella. Lisbeth. When I grow up, if I do, if I have a daughter, I will name her Elizabeth. But I won't call her Lizzie, ever.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heat waves and other Illusions

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, June 24, 2012

The Trophy

To begin with, the Martins were old. Not fortyish, like my parents; really old, older even than my grandma.

She -- Mrs. Martin -- was shaped like an engine block; almost as wide as she was long, and giving the impression of squareness, even though there were no right angles about her. A small engine; she was no taller than I, a mere five feet. Her steel-grey hair was always pinned firmly into a bun at the nape of her neck, her sober skirts fell almost to her ankles, her shoes were black and sturdy. No nonsense about Mrs. Martin.

The mister was larger and rounder and softer. Just barely, though. He always wore a workman's shirt and baggy wool trousers, held up by suspenders. Sometimes a hat; a city hat, but much oil-stained and sat upon.

I have a picture of them, standing side by side in the hospital gardens, holding hands and smiling identical smiles. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, without the battle.

I first saw them in the staff dining room. We kids came down to lunch early that day and found the room empty, except for the Martins. He was already sitting at the table, she was on his lap, and they were kissing. Energetically. This was nothing like the hello-goodbye peck Mom and Dad indulged in, twice a day; they were kissing like people in the romantic stories from the magazines my grandma hid in her basement. Long, breathless, face-crushing kisses, both his arms around her ample waist, her hand on the back of his head, fingers parting his grey hair. They didn't seem to notice us in spite of the racket we had made, pounding down the stairs, the boys shouting.

We kids were struck dumb; we slid into our places on the long bench under the window silently, without any of our usual jostling. I tried, unsuccessfully, not to look.

The grown-ups, when they arrived, were less circumspect. There was a slight pause as each of them came through the door at the bottom of the stairs, a quick grin, and then a jocular comment.

"Making up for lost time, Walter?"

"What's this, dessert first?"

Chairs scraped, silverware clattered. Doc MacLean came in through the back door from his office. "Okay, that's enough, you two love-birds," he called out. "Behave!"

I was embarrassed for them. For Mrs. Martin, especially. Caught like that, between pleasing her husband and maintaining proper decorum! How she must feel!

Or not. She stood up, laughing, and deposited a kiss on Mr. Martin's bald spot. And he, playing to his audience, pulled her back down again for an encore. One final, slobbery, noisy buss. "Mmmm--wah!" he said.

Doc MacLean said grace, and the cook brought in the meal. Mrs. Martin had to cut up her husband's meat for him. He had no teeth. From the jokes people made, I gathered that he had lost them in a honeymoon mishap.

 Mom told us the rest of the story after work that evening.

Mr. Martin was a recent widower. In the last months of his wife's illness, they had sold the farm and moved into Vancouver. He found a good church there, and attended as regularly as he could, given his wife's condition.

After she died, he cast about for something to do, something useful. He heard about the mission hospital and sent in an application.

If he were to go out to the wilds to serve God, he decided, he would need a wife. He started examining the women in the church. Most were married, some of the single ones were too flighty. Some came only Sunday morning, dressed in their showiest hats, carrying Bibles that looked as if they were rarely opened.

He concentrated on the few women who came to the Wednesday evening prayer meetings, the very few. One, a Miss Peters, was there regularly. Her Bible was worn and stuffed with notes, her dress was modest. She looked a sensible woman.

He asked around. "Miss Peters? Oh, yes. A good woman. A willing worker," he was told.

He had never spoken to her, but he wrote a note and handed it to her at the door, after prayer meeting. "Miss Peters," it said, "Please excuse my writing to you like this. I have been accepted by the Nootka Mission Association to work in their hospital on Vancouver Island. However, I feel the Lord wants me to go accompanied by a wife. Will you marry me?"

He saw her Sunday morning and evening, but apart from a cautious smile in his direction, she gave no response. It did seem, also, as if the pastor's wife were looking at him strangely. And the organist. He refused to worry, though; Miss Peters was a good woman. God would tell her what to do.

Wednesday evening she passed him a folded slip of paper. "Yes," it said. Nothing more.

So here they were, wed less than a week, smooching in our dining room. Miss Peters -- now Mrs. Martin -- would be working in the hospital laundry; her husband was our new handyman.

Mom would have ended the story there. It was an instructive little tale, a good example for a daughter just beginning to think about womanhood: be good, go to church, read your Bible, be patient, and you'll be assured of a nice husband. But Dad was prodding her to go on.

"Tell the kids about his teeth," he said.

At dawn on the morning after the wedding, the Martins boarded the Princess Maquinna for the trip north. It would be a beautiful honeymoon cruise; the weather was balmy, the cabin comfortable, the scenery postcard-perfect. They ate a hearty breakfast in the dining room and went out to the deck to watch the tip of Vancouver Island glide by.

On the "outside", the water open to the wide Pacific, the boat began to roll, just a little. And it soon became apparent that Mr. Martin was not a sailor. Before lunch, the couple had retired to the cabin; she went up to the dining room alone. He wasn't interested in food.

Further north, the swell increased; there was a slight breeze. The Maquinna plowed through the water, climbing and diving, rising and falling, always twisting on a slight angle from the direction of travel. They rounded Estevan Point; West-Coast seamen call it "The Graveyard of the Pacific". Up, down, roll, climb, drop. Roll, and up again. Mr. Martin's breakfast left its moorings. Mrs. Martin held the basin.

When it was over, Mr. Martin lay back on the bunk, groaning. Mrs. Martin opened the porthole. She reached out and dumped the contents of the basin into the salt chuck.

"My teeth!" her new husband shouted. Too late. They rest, still, just off Estevan Point.

Dad loved this part of the story. He kept supplying the details Mom wanted to leave out. And he ruined her lesson. "Be patient, dress modestly, go to church" and all the rest, and what do you get? A lousy sailor, in suspenders, with no teeth.

There had to be a better plan.

Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recipe for a poem, Latin American style

Disclaimer: I love Spanish-language poetry, but cannot write it. Another frustrating attempt led to this spoof.

These words are of the essence:
heaven, wind, stars, heart
Delight and anguish, infinite
green forgetfulness and purple night.

Mix well, fold in a well of sleep,
a grave, abandoned by the sea.
The purple sea, under the aching stars;
forgotten hearts' delight: forgotten, false!

Green heart, green heaven, abandoned night.
A sleeping grave,
the purple sea, under the anguished stars.

For seasoning: it was mid-summer, the wind
high in the heavens, false promises of rain.
Do you remember? The weeping rose scenting the breeze,
the purple night, the anguished sea.

Pour into hearts and bake under the summer
moon - do you remember? What grave
abandon! What delights! Such stars were never seen!
The aching night beside the purple sea.

Poems, Humour
©Susannah Anderson, 2001

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: Days 11 to 13

Days 11 to 13: The road back.

(Day 1, here)

The dogs' barking woke me long before dawn. They echoed all around us in the dark, and I was frightened at first, until I was able to distinguish between them and estimate distances. Over on the hillside, a pack kept up a shrill yammering. Closer in, below us in the ruined city, the voices were more isolated. One howled, and the others picked up the chorus. A burro brayed, close by.

Raquel and I were sleeping side by side at one end of our campsite, for propriety's sake. The men were out of sight, beyond the car. I could hear them talking, and after a few minutes George came over.

"Get up," he said. We're leaving. Now."

We were well out of the Managua basin when the sun rose. We stopped for breakfast by the side of the road. Just the perfect place, Carlos said. Far enough out of the city for fugitives to feel safe, close enough for them to have walked here. They must be all around us, sleeping in the fields. A perfect place for us to distribute the rest of our food; there wasn't much left, but it made no sense to carry it home.

"But there's nobody around," I said. "How will anybody know we're here?"

"We'll just sit here. They'll show up."

While we waited, Carlos opened the tailgate and arranged the foodstuffs on it, with a couple of cups to scoop out powdered milk and rice. Then he crawled back to delve into his duffel bag, and brought out a handful of multi-coloured plastic gloves.

"What are those for?" Raquel asked.

"For explaining the gospel. I'll show you." He put a glove on his left hand, held it up. Each finger was a different colour, and on the palm was written, "God loves you." Carlos pointed to the thumb. "It's black," he said. "That helps you to explain that our hearts are black with sin. Next is red, for the blood of Christ. You keep pointing to it, while you tell about the crucifixion, and how Jesus' blood washes us clean. That's the next finger; white. And the fourth is yellow, for gold. The streets of gold, you know?"

"And the little finger, why is it green?"

"Green is for growth. That's for after you have prayed with the person, and they have accepted Jesus. Then you can teach them that they are babies in Christ, and need to read their Bible and pray every day so that they can grow.

"What we'll do, one of us will dole out food, and the others will talk to the people that show up." He handed each one of us a glove.

I gave mine back. "I'll work on the food," I said. I went to the back of the station wagon and read the label on a powdered milk can. Half a cup would make one litre; we had enough for 50 to 60 litres. I decided I would give every person that came one cupful. If anyone showed up, that was.

When I looked up, the others had decided on stations; Paco and George at the front and rear on the driver's side of the car, Raquel and Carlos on the right. They would be able to speak to four people at once, without interference. Carlos had his Bible open on the engine hood, and was drilling Raquel in the use of the glove. A woman was walking across the field, heading our way.

We got busy soon after that; the first woman was joined by a couple of children, then a trickle of families. Soon we were surrounded. I counted out oranges, ladled powdered milk into cups and recycled cans. Someone had passed on the news, with the instruction; "Bring your own container." The last pair of kids got only an almost-empty milk can. The little girl hugged it tightly with both arms as she walked back across the field.

As soon as the food was gone, people stopped coming. I left the empty orange crate by the side of the road and closed the tailgate. Carlos finished his last recounting of the glove -- with the yellow finger, I noticed -- and the man he had been talking to took the crate and escaped. We got into the car and drove away from there.

Carlos was bubbling over. "We must have talked to 40 people!" he said. "Maybe 50! They all heard the gospel, maybe for the first time!"

"Did anybody pray with you?" Paco asked.

"No. You?"

Paco shook his head. In the front seat, Raquel turned to face us. "Nobody." George was driving; he gave no sign that he had heard the question.

Carlos' enthusiasm wasn't easily dampened. "It doesn't matter," he said. "God's word is never preached in vain. He's promised that.

Besides, we are not responsible for the results of what we do; we did what God told us and that's what counts."

He leafed through his Bible. "Look what Paul says about it," he said. He started to read. I stopped listening. I was thinking of the girl with the milk can and wondering what she would do for milk tomorrow.


The rest of the trip back to Mexico was uneventful. Our empty station wagon breezed through customs. We crossed the worst of the war zone in daylight, so we drove through the night, Carlos and George rotating every four hours or so. We picked up the boys in Guatemala City and drove on immediately. No shopping, no side-trips.

In the evening of the first day we heard on the radio that there had been a small after-shock that morning in Managua. "I knew it!" Carlos said. Once again, God had led us, getting us out of the city on time.

The radio announcer said that there were no fatalities, no new damage. Still, there could have been.

I was glad we were making good time. George had abandoned all pretense of politeness towards Carlos, refusing to speak to him, and occasionally fixing him with an angry glare. While he drove, he talked only to Raquel. The rest of the time, he slept, or pretended to be asleep. I was embarrassed for him; as a minister, he was supposed to be the spiritual leader.

I tried to cover up by keeping a conversation going in the back seat, but we were always falling into awkward silences. It was easier once we'd picked up my boys; Marcos and James maintained a constant chatter.

Something he ate had disagreed with Paco. By the time we got to the Mexican border, we were having to stop every little while for him to be sick. Raquel fussed over him, helping him to wash up, asking every few minutes, "Are you feeling better yet, Paco?"

The answer was always, "No." As soon as we reached a decent-sized town in Mexico, Raquel insisted that we take Paco to the doctor.

We found a clinic just off the town plaza. The waiting room was a long hallway with a few wooden benches along one wall. Every seat was taken, but a woman shooed her kid off, to let Paco sit down. Raquel knelt beside him on the floor. "Hold on, Paco. We'll have you fixed up soon," she said. Carlos went to talk to the receptionist.

It was too hot to wait in the car, so George and I stood just outside the doorway, where the overhang made a few inches of shade. The boys played in the cobblestoned street. A man leaning against the wall a few metres away pushed himself upright and came to meet us.

"Buenas tardes," he said, extending a hand. "Pablo Jimenez, at your service. Are you new in town, or just passing through?"

"On our way to Mexico City, coming from Nicaragua." George answered. Which led into a discussion of what we had been doing there, and why. Within minutes, Sr. Jimenez had identified himself an a Jehovah's Witness, and we had embarked on a heated discussion of the Trinity. Jimenez proved to be well-trained, and I was relieved to see George revert to his normal self, eyes bright, hands waving, voice persuasive, as he launched himself into an explanation of the intricacies of Greek articles in the Gospel of John.

I hardly noticed when Carlos joined us. He listened for a while, then went to the car and came back carrying his Bible. When George paused for breath, Carlos stepped forward. "Look," he said to Sr. Jimenez, "I have it right here, in my Bible. The Spanish, and a Greek dictionary in back. See?" He held the Bible out, pages flapping.

George let Carlos take over the conversation, and after a few minutes went over to the car himself. He rummaged through the back, then waved me over. "Where's my Bible?" he called.

It was just an excuse. As soon as I was close enough, he said, "What's gotten into you? I've been watching you; you're flirting with Carlos."


"Yes! And I won't have it, you hear?" He grabbed my arm, dug his fingers into the muscle. "Be careful! I'm watching you." He shook me once, released me, and picked up his Bible -- it was there on the seat all the time.

We went back to the shade, but George made no effort to reclaim the conversation. I was careful not to smile, not to look in Carlos' direction. When Paco and Raquel came out of the clinic and we went back to the car, George said to me, "You're sitting up front. Raquel can sit in back with Paco."

It was a long, miserable afternoon. Marcos and James sat in the back, and every time I spoke to them, I had to make sure I turned my head to the right, so as to avoid any appearance of looking at Carlos. We stopped for supper somewhere. George joked with the waitress, and with our boys. He refused to speak to anyone else. We drove on, in silence. The boys went to sleep.

"Talk to me, Susana. Keep me awake," George said. He had been driving all afternoon and evening; Carlos hadn't offered to take his turn.

I talked. About what, I don't know. Anything that sounded cheerful and harmless. George barely answered. I fiddled with the radio, and once we had crossed the mountains, I picked up George's favourite station. The music gave me an excuse to stop talking.

In Mexico City, we dropped Carlos and Paco off, wordlessly. I shook hands with Paco, and pretended not to see Carlos. We drove on. 40 miles left to go. Raquel dozed in the back seat.

The radio station went off the air, and I found another, playing American music. I remember a woman singing, "Fever." Later there was a new song, one I hadn't heard before. I didn't get all the words, but the chorus was repeated over and over. "Strumming my pain with his fingers, Singing my life with his words, Killing me softly with his song, Killing me softly..." The highway stretched in front of us, four empty lanes, the dotted line coming up smoothly to meet our headlights, the mountains black on either side.

We drove down into Toluca, along the sleepy streets. Raquel woke and got out at her house. Her parents bundled our girls into the back seat. We took them home.

The next Sunday George preached about the Christmas Eve earthquake, about the need to be ready at any moment to meet God.

I never saw Raquel again. She stopped coming to church, and dropped out of Bible Study. In Guatemala City, the next earthquake toppled the house where we had left my boys into the ravine.

Stories of Mexico: Non-fiction
©Susannah Anderson, 2001