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On Sundays we woke early and drove to where the snow piled on roofs like thick slabs of icing. Dad pulled me behind him in a pulka, a sled on skis covered in orange canvas. He clicked his toes into his cross-country ski bindings and fastened the Velcro strap around his belly.

The ride lulled me to sleep. I woke to my heart rising in my chest as Dad snowplowed down a steep hill. Sunlight filtered through fir trees. The light is how I mapped our location. Blinding sun meant we were crossing a frozen lake. When it grew dark we were entering forest. I listened to Dad’s skis grip the snow. The twirk of a whiskey jack.

One time he lost control going down a hill and fell. The pulka crashed into him. I launched into the sky. His limbs, skis and poles got so tangled he lay in the snow for a moment, squinting at the sun. Dad hoisted himself to his feet. He looked around and couldn’t find me, then saw two legs sticking out of the snow bank and plucked me out, just like a carrot.

When I was old enough to ski, technique was more important than speed or distance. Lean forward, kick back, plant pole.

“Weight shift!” Dad said, stepping out of the track to pass me. Ice hung from his beard. He skied three laps. I skied one. I wanted to drink enough Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate to make myself sick before we drove home.

The drive was long but Dad bought us Sun Chips if we promised to throw the bag out so Mom wouldn’t know. We let a gust of winter inside before slamming the front door. The fire had died. The house was silent. Mom was sleeping in bed, right where we left her. I sprinted at the mattress, swung my arms out wide and belly flopped on top of her.


In the spring the grass lay flat and yellow and ugly. It looked warm outside but I still had to wear a jacket. We lived on Vancouver Island, then, on a handful of acres that seemed to go on forever. I was five.

I spent the afternoons on our swing. It was attached to a branch of the apple tree with two pieces of scratchy, yellow rope. I pumped my legs in front of me and leaned back. There it was, that moment of weightlessness. The rope tightened. I snapped back down to the ground.

“My mom is gonna get better this year!” I screamed to the empty highway. That made me laugh. Nobody could hear me, but I kept screaming. The swing rose towards the stack of firewood behind me. I pumped my legs. The momentum made everything seem absolute. Of course Mom would get better. Dad said so. That’s what happened to people. They got better. Either that, or they died.

My friends asked if she was going to die. Yes, I wanted to say. I could be the one with the dying mother. My kindergarten teacher would stroke my hair during recess; ask if I was doing alright. These thoughts belonged to the horrible part of my brain. The part that daydreamed about my own funeral, or how nice it would feel to push my sister off her chair when she chewed her breakfast cereal with her mouth open.

Mom says she is not going to die.

“How do you know?” I asked her.

“It’s not fatal,” Mom said.

• • •

I have asked her this too many times.

• • •

Mom got sick when I was two. She got sick from grocery shopping, weeding the garden, having a friend over for dinner. She walked down the street and got sick. Doctors thought she was in a slump. Get some fresh air, they said. She tried acupuncture, diet, massage, yoga, counseling, naturopaths. She swallowed a white pill in a spoonful of yogurt. It was an exhaustion no one could understand.

• • •

In the mornings I pulled Mom’s eyelids open with both thumbs, then lay in her armpit, imagining how slow time must move for her.

Socks. Gumboots. Then I grabbed my backpack, and opened the front door to the world. The wooden steps. The empty garden. The front gate. The highway. I ran up the hill to the bus stop, listening to my breath, my boots slapping against pavement. Mom still back home, still in bed.

The school bus driver took me home from kindergarten at noon. He called himself the muffin man. There was nobody else on the bus. Other kids didn’t live that far out. I sat in the seat right behind him and watched the back of his neck jiggle.

Oh, do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man,

Oh, do you know the muffin man, that lives on Drury Lane?

He hummed in the driver’s seat. I whispered the lyrics—quietly, so he couldn’t hear — and stared at my bare thighs. I liked the way they darkened in the sun. I liked how they stuck to the seat on hot days.

The driver stepped off the bus. He yawned; stretched his arms overhead.

“Got any muffins for me today?” he asked Mom. She was waiting for me at the gate. I knew it was bad to be sick, but I liked how she was always there when I came home.

She talked to the driver with words I didn’t understand. Mom never baked muffins. I don’t know why he kept asking. I plucked an apple from the tree and climbed the wooden fence. I folded my tongue in half and tried to cluck our cow, Lawnmower, towards me.

“Come here cow,” I begged.

I snapped my fingers. I didn’t know much about animals. We didn’t have pets. Mom said she had enough kids to take care of.

Lawnmower walked towards me. The grass crunched under his weight. I dropped the apple before he could lower his wet mouth to my palm. I didn’t like his tongue licking my skin. It felt like sandpaper and made a strange part of my belly ache. He lowered his head and pierced his teeth through the skin of the fruit. In a few months a butcher would drive to our property and shoot a bullet between Lawnmower’s eyes. Then we would eat him for dinner.

The muffin man snapped the bus door shut and drove away. We waited outside until we couldn’t hear the engine. The silence hummed. The afternoon stretched in front of me like a long hallway.

• • •

I sat at the kitchen table with my legs dangling from the chair, and ate so many sandwiches Mom said I might burst. When I finished one, she sliced more cheese and tomato and wedged it between dry bread full of seeds.

Some days her disease was invisible. After lunch we walked down the neighbour’s long driveway. I ran ahead to jump in puddles. In the winter, when the water froze, I held her hand and my breath, a thin layer of ice cracking under my weight.

Other days she talked slowly. We lay in her bed, my head resting on the skin between her collarbone and breast. The afternoon light covered us like a blanket. Mom read me the library book I had memorized: Brave Irene, except she said Nadine instead of Irene. In the book, Irene’s mother, Mrs. Bobbin, is a dressmaker. She is sick, too. Mrs. Bobbin sends her daughter, Irene, through a snowstorm so the duchess can have her gown for the big ball.

“Dress warmly pudding,” her mother called in a weak voice. Nadine put on her fleece-lined boots, her red hat and muffler, her heavy coat and mittens.

Irene’s mother smelled like fresh bread. My mother smelled like the green nightgown she had been wearing for two days. The sheets were damp. When Mom fell asleep, I imagined myself as a baby, floating inside her belly. It would be warm and wet. Wherever she went, I would go, too.

• • •

One afternoon I crawled out of bed and walked to the kitchen, willing something, anything, to happen. The dirty dishes in the sink, the broom leaning against the fridge, a single, blue slipper on the floor—they were all frustratingly still.

In the living room I lay on the couch watching the fan spin. It’s called an optical illusion: if you keep your eyes on one blade the entire fan stays in focus, but let your eyes relax and it’s a whirring blur.

• • •

When Mom was too sick to take care of me she stayed in the back cabin, a few hundred meters from the house at the edge of the forest. She read books until she was too tired to look at the words.

A babysitter waited outside for the school bus. I wasn’t allowed to visit Mom.

On days like this, I snuck out of the house and used an old ice cream pail to collect garden snakes. They were everywhere: slipping through the tall grass, hiding under the front steps. Their bodies thrashed around in the plastic, little tongues searching for something. It scared me. I had never had something so powerful swinging from my fist.

I could see Mom through the cabin window. She was curled on her side, sleeping. I wondered if I should wake her to show her my snakes. I’m sure she would like that, I thought, reaching up to turn the doorknob.


Mom and Dad had tired of the island lifestyle; they wanted us to grow tall with the mountains. We packed our life in cardboard boxes and moved to a town nestled in a shallow valley. Here we could ski from our back door. We could watch the mountains: pink light in the morning, washed out blue in the afternoon, a shadow of ridges at night. Mom said she would feel better in the cold mountain air.

The first day on the road my sister slammed the car door on my finger. The doctor pushed a needle through my skin until he hit bone, then sewed the flap shut with eight stitches: one for each year I had lived. Dad bit his lip as the thread tightened around my skin. He bought me a cookie from Tim Hortons and turned back on the highway, towards the distant ridges.

Snow piled on the windshield. The wipers cleared it away. Dad could see the road again, for a moment.

“Look for deer,” he said. We were driving into Kimberley for the first time. “Watch for their eyes in the ditch. They’ll reflect off the headlights.”

I could not believe how fat the snowflakes were. They floated from the sky, slowly, like falling stars. We were traveling through space.

Mom took a plane with Steffie. He didn’t look like a loaf of bread wrapped in a dish towel anymore. Steffie stared at me like he understood what was happening, but he didn’t. He would not remember our old cabin, or anything else: Lawnmower, the snakes, the bathroom roof that leaked.

When we got to our new house, we sat on the living room floor, eating ice cream from the tub. I soaked my finger in a plastic cup of hydrogen peroxide. The air was dry. I licked my lips until a red ring grew around my mouth. We each picked a bedroom and fell asleep on camping mats.

Mom took me to the doctor the next week. The rash around my lips was starting to crack and bleed. She wore her long, button up jacket over her pajamas and rested her head against the wall. I swung my legs in the chair and slipped my tongue over my lips while she wasn’t looking. A nurse knelt in front of me. She rubbed a white ointment into the rash and told me to stop licking my lips. I nodded, knowing that I wouldn’t.

Kimberley was built as a mining town more than a hundred years ago. The streets were lined with matching A-frame houses. Porch light and one-car garage. Our house was massive, built as a Swiss-style bed and breakfast. It looks bigger from the outside, Dad told the new neighbours. He taught me the word ostentatious.

“It’s not something you want to be.”

Men took a train underground to work in a network of tunnels beneath the town. They were taking lead, zinc and silver from the earth. On the street you could hear the moan of the mine, so faint it was hard to tell if you were imagining it or not. Everyone in Kimberley knew the sound would stop soon: there was hardly anything left to take out of the ground. Businesses built flowerboxes on their front windows and dressed their employees in lederhosen. The City painted fire hydrants to look like German children and built a cuckoo clock. They hired “wandering minstrels” to play the accordion on Main Street. Tourism, everyone thought: it will save us.

Families who lived in Kimberley had either been there for generations, or moved from Calgary or Vancouver to get away from the city. They spoke of the landscape as if they had finally found something to believe in. This, they say, this is paradise. I wondered what it looked like from their eyes. All I saw were mounds of rock.

• • •

Mom’s Olympic jacket was crumpled in the basement dress-up box. Red V-neck. Three white buttons and a badge over the left breast. The inside lining smelled like mold.

I couldn’t fit my shoulders into the stiff fabric, and so I yelled upstairs for Steffie. He let me dress him up as a girl if I gave him a dollar.

Steffie clutched the railing and hopped down the stairs as if his bare feet were tied together with a piece of rope. His bowl of golden hair bounced. Mom refused to cut the curly tail that grew down his neck. He was the youngest of four, the last one of us to cross over into the place of self-awareness.

He slipped his arms through the sleeves. Too big. I folded them up and fastened the button at his neck. He stood still, lost in the material. I dug out a red tutu and tied his hair into pigtails, then lined his lips in cherry lip balm.

I took a step back.

“Looks fantastic.”

He beamed, and ran upstairs to show Mom.

• • •

She didn’t like it when I boasted about the Olympics. I didn’t have a choice: I only had two stories. The other one was that my family had climbed Mount Everest. Mount Aerosmith, Mom corrected, but I continued to say Everest, anyway.

Mom was seventeen when she travelled to Japan to cross-country ski against the world’s fastest women. She thought she might win a medal—why not? She wrote a letter home to her mother after her first race.

I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t that tired but I couldn’t get my legs to move any faster.

There was a photo album on the bottom of our bookshelf. Sapparo ’72 inscribed on the front in gold letters. In the team photo the women are wearing miniskirts and moccasins. They are squinting at the camera, their eyes adjusting to the white light. It’s snowing. Mom doesn’t know what to do with her hands. She is smiling, the kind that comes after a burst of laughter.


Mom got her job when my first pimples sprouted. It was work for an environmental group, cleaning the river that ran through town. A hundred years of mining had left the water saturated with metals. Invasive plants like knapweed and dalmatian toadflax had taken over the riverbank.

“You’re going to start working, now?” I asked. Mom had just hung up the phone. It was Saturday morning and all six of us were in her bedroom.

“But what about us?”

Mom had spent years in bed reading books on climate change and local food production and carbon footprints. Dad had even torn up the back lawn and dumped truckloads of horse manure in its place. When the snow melted in spring Mom kneeled in the garden; planting seeds, weeding, feeling the soil press into her knees.

Her body had been slowly repairing itself over the years. She could walk around the block. Make dinner and vacuum the entire house. When dusk fell she was still squatting on the counters, wiping the corners of the cupboards in that gleeful, obsessive way she cleaned twice a year.

Dad tried to lure her down. He had a particular way of saying her name, as if it were a question.

“Helen?" he would ask, “Do you think you might be overdoing it?”

We still called her sick but she spent months at a time out of bed. Doctors believed her now. They called it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a name she had been identifying with since she lost her energy over a decade ago. But a name was all the syndrome had to make it real: the symptoms mimicked the aches and exhaustion of fibromyalgia and the relapses of multiple sclerosis, but something was different. There was no known cause, no tests, and no cure.

After days like this, Mom fell into bed at two in the morning. Her fingers reeked of vinegar. Sometimes she would leave the bedroom the next day, sometimes she wouldn’t. The cycle was all I knew.

• • •

Mom piled rubber hip waders in the back of the mini-van and drove to my school once a week for Stream Team. The science nerds followed her like little ducklings down to Mark Creek. They waded in the water looking for fish, or clutched garbage bags on the bank, ripping weeds from the soil and stuffing them in the plastic.

One day when she was feeling particularly lively, Mom asked me to drive to the creek with her and count trout.

I was focused on two things: my face, and the bathroom mirror. I thought if I scrubbed hard enough, the constellations of pimples on my forehead would stop exploding and dry out into a modest-looking rash. I said yes, hoping the fresh air would distract me.

It took us twenty minutes to wedge our bodies into the thick neoprene.

“Can you do me up?” she asked, pulling her hair from the back of her neck into a ponytail. It zipped easily. She didn’t eat sugar anymore and had shed much of the flesh I used to bury myself in. I turned to look at my own body in the mirror. I was 16. My stomach and hips had turned into something you could grab.

We drove through town in our wetsuits and parked at a stretch of river safe to swim, just a kilometer upstream of the waterfall. It was five o’clock and traffic was heavy. We waited for a clearing, then ran across the highway and crawled down the bank. The water was brown and there was an abandoned shopping cart wedged against a boulder, rocking with the current.

“How do I keep track?” I said. I put the rubber flippers on my feet and tightened the mask.

“Just estimate,” she said.

I waded into my knees. The water seeped through the neoprene. It took a moment to feel the shock of cold against my skin. It was the end of August and the snow had long ago melted from the mountains; still, there was enough water to swim without our bellies hitting rocks. Mom drew a breath in and closed her eyes. She sunk below the surface and let the current carry her downstream.

The sun dipped low. Light flooded the valley. Mom broke the surface before rounding the bend, drenched in a brilliant orange. Then she sunk underwater again, floating towards the Pacific Ocean.

The Trails

It’s hard to pinpoint when I knew Mom’s illness would remain inside her. They were close to finding a cure in Scandinavia. She would sign up for the trials, she told us. But the trials never happened, or she didn’t make the list, or she forgot. Maybe I knew after returning home from university the first time. At the airport she hugged me in a white, pressed shirt and new earrings that dangled. Her neck smelled like a bar of soap. Still, the illness weighed her down. She carried the fatigue with her like an old purse.

I saw Mom ski, once. It was a few days before I flew back to school on the coast. She glided down the track next to me, maintaining the slow pace that defined her life. We were silent. Daydreaming. Dad passed us in his spandex outfit.

As we neared the crest of a hill, she leaned forward, planting her pole a foot ahead of the tip of her ski. Her leg kicked into the air behind her. She gained speed as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. Her body moved with a grace I had never seen. Her muscles had remembered everything.

The hill curved downwards. She crouched and tucked her poles into her armpits, letting out a cry as the frozen land slid past her.


Nadine Sander-Green is writer who splits her time between Whitehorse, Yukon and Kimberley, BC. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria, and worked for a few years as a daily news reporter until realizing she just wanted to write about her family and feelings. Nadine started working on her first book, a memoir in essays, through the Banff Centre's Wired Writing program and the Sage Hill Writing Experience. One of these stories won honourable mention in the 2013 Prairie Fire non-fiction contest, and she's happy to share another here at Big Truths.

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BT #012 © 2014 Nadine Sander Green. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, September 2014.


counting trout

by nadine sander-green