Listen to the story:
When someone from my family tells a story, it’s a performance. They add a new detail, gently exaggerate, or sprinkle in strong language to generate awe or laughter. They may have told the entire story (of admittedly minimal value) to the same group of people a million times before, but however they tell it — even if they’ve added new embellishments — it’s true.
I wouldn’t start this story any other way.
I address you. We could be wherever. Coffee table, campfire, patch of grass — take your pick. I turn to you with my whole demeanour. My eyebrows fly up my forehead and I spread my fingers so wide you can see the webs. Now you’re stuck listening, you can’t get away even if you want to.
“Listen,” I say. “at the age of nine, I outran rain!”
I remember standing with my cousin Rémy at the end of the road where the bush opened and turned into the endless horizon of farmers’ fields. Everything is so big. At nine, I’m small for my age, all knobby and covered with open scabs like a stray dog. In my childhood memories, Rémy is almost always around. He’s one year older, but I copy everything he does. I’m his shadow.
We had talked about outrunning the rain all summer. When we saw a storm approaching, we’d head out to the road to watch it come in. Today we had timed it right. Above the fields was a grey storm cloud, shuddering and loud. It was huge, matching the size of the ground.
Based on the way the wind was moving, it was coming our way. It approached like a wild beast ready to explode.
If the pressure in the air was any indication, the thing was going to open up like a mouth and completely flood the entire prairie with water.
We fidgeted with anticipation and waited. When the first drops landed on our heads, we turned and bolted.
My extended family’s private campground is smack in the middle of a bush, located just near St. Malo, Manitoba. I’ve spent every summer out there since I was in the womb. By the time I was seven, I had the entire area memorized. This was long before I could remember the names of everyone in the family.
When you first arrive, the road opens into a large clearing. The gravel path snakes all the way down to the riverbed, framed snugly by trees and small cabins.
It’s essentially a family trailer park, decorated with unspoken rules, traditions, and coloured lanterns.
My family’s own cabin is literally a big red barn. My mom’s idea. She loves that wooden cabin like a child. Originally, it was a rickety little trailer with a screen room attached to the side — pathetic, but it kept the mosquitoes out. Now, the place is being renovated almost constantly. Hell, it has a deck on the second floor.
Most notably though, near our spot in the middle of the camp, is a wooden structure called the “gazebo,” which is not really a gazebo at all. Right next to it is an old fire pit pushed deep into the ground after decades of use. A meeting place.
As a kid, the camp was huge. But, even still, I knew every stump, brick and slope as well as the freckles on my arm. It was the perfect battlefield for an overactive imagination. I would leap full throttle out of the bush, still covered with blood-filled mosquitoes, and blast invisible soldiers with a plastic rifle from the dollar store in Steinbach.
With all the fun, the adults still tried to make it clear that we were in the middle of nowhere. It could be dangerous they said, even though we were surrounded by family. At the ages of nine and ten, Rémy and I enjoyed playing a game called “Dead Man.” We floated face-down in the current of the river wearing our life jackets, arms and legs splayed out and motionless.
The adults didn’t like it.
“Pépère avait toujours nous-dit qu’il a vu (saw) des corps (bodies) appartiennent à des enfants (of children) qui s’étaient noyés (drowned) dans la rivière (in the river),” they said.
French was my second language, but I got the message.
That story is where I got my fear of drowning. I clearly imagined a little girl floating face-down in the brown water in a way that mirrored me and my cousin.
During the years after hearing that story, I played on the side of the road opposite to the water.
That wasn’t my first brush with mortality out in that field. My initial discomfort with death came from seeing it right in front of me — in the form of a rotting coyote carcass, hunted for fun and bent unnaturally in a ditch next to the end of the road.
There was a beer can stuffed into its dried, empty ribcage, an afterthought. Its eyes were open, glossed, and pointed upwards at the sky above. The paws were splayed out, frozen in a running motion, never to move again. As I stared at it dumbly, my ears were filled with the aggressive buzzing of hungry flies.
The coyotes in the nearby fields were another thing we were warned about. You could hear them at night, hooting and hollering into the dark. This coyote, though, was not scary anymore. It took a wrong turn in what was essentially its own home and got its shit rocked.
It was the neighbours who shot it. They lived in the house near the campground that used to belong to my great-grandparents. I never knew them, I only caught glimpses. They were scary. I didn’t know what they would do if I trespassed and they caught me.
We’ll have to keep an eye on the dogs, I once overheard a great-aunt mention. They were unleashed and would be shot if they strayed too close to the neighbour’s house.
When the coyote’s body was removed, my aunt and uncle kept the skull and kept it on the windowsill of their cabin. I thought of the dry bones, now bleached from the sun.
Despite fears of drowning or death, the camp was a big source of comfort growing up.
Winnipeg meant ‘real life’: school, friend drama, home issues, and my own brain.
At the end of 2022, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, ADHD, ASD, and an unspecified panic disorder at 19. These are a lot of terms and acronyms to describe the fact that my brain is off kilter. Scared.
My diagnosis didn’t come as a surprise. It had been a subject of conversation in the family for years. I went to a counsellor with my mom during my early education because I constantly talked to her about death. I didn’t want her or my dad to get hurt or die. I had nightmares involving people breaking into the house, or my family all getting killed in a violent car accident.
My mom called them “worries.” They didn’t exist outside of my head. The child counsellor gave me a short lesson on how not to water the “worry tree,” something I remember but never really used. At the camp, the worries didn’t go away — but they were different.
Things out there were real. I could recognize when the coyote was dead. I could see and smell the rot. I didn’t have to imagine it in my head. Everything way out here was real, but somehow the worries weren’t as violent. I knew my family wouldn’t let anything happen to me. The fire pit next to the gazebo meant safety.
One of the unspoken rules was that everyone — and there were a lot of us — had to meet at the campfire. It’s what I looked forward to every Friday. I’d strategically ask the questions that would get me the best stories — ones I had already heard a thousand times before. Even better, I got to stay up late.
The fire was a beacon of light in an otherwise black landscape. It can get scary at night in the prairies, but we were loud enough to freak out anything creeping around.
My great-grandfather founded the camp. He died before I was born, but has implanted himself in every summer childhood memory and core experience.
He was a carpenter in World War II, where he lost part of one thumb. Later, he settled in the rural French and Métis community when he returned to Canada. He started a small farm, framed safely by the endless prairie and the Rivière aux Rats, a tributary of the Red River, to house cows, pigs, chickens, and dogs. He was a quiet man, but according to my great-aunts, very connected to the animals. They followed him around as he did his daily rounds, curious and compliant.
My grandma very seriously noted that he had some kind of deep, interpersonal connection with them. “They all trusted him,” she said.
He and my great-grandmother had nine kids, who then got married and had their own kids, who then all had kids themselves. That’s the generation I fall into. I can’t even begin to count how many distant cousins I have off the top of my head.
In a family that big, I wasn’t the first one with a mental illness. It wasn’t something we openly talked about. It was very hush-hush, internal family gossip. Sitting in on those conversations made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my legs go fuzzy. There were far-off relatives who were “wrong.” There were faces that, even with the proximity of my family, I was never allowed to see.
At the time, I could only associate mental illness with ‘bad.’ These relatives did bad things. They mistreated children and other family members. Hearing the stories, I would lace my fingers and pick at the skin surrounding my nails.
“That’s not me.”
Still, I felt crazy.
My parents split when I was eight. My mom’s first partner afterwards was a man with a goofy, gentle demeanour that she met at work.
They moved in together very quickly, renovating the house to accommodate a blended family. We even adopted a sweet cocker spaniel. But then, like most things, it began to dissolve. Slowly at first. It was uncomfortable. The ‘happy family’ setting felt forced in a way that was different from how my parents ever were.
By the time I was 11, I had grown out of my “worry” phase, but normal life was beginning to remind me of those old thoughts. I didn’t understand why I would wake up at three in the morning, convinced that someone had broken in, and go downstairs to find violence. My home contorted into something to be afraid of.
Sometimes things were okay and sometimes they weren’t, and that shift between fine and chaotic could happen when I didn’t expect it to.
I didn’t understand why my worries were suddenly so bad, why growing up and being in this new house with a new guardian made every symptom I already had more prominent and self-destructive. I quickly shifted from being a ‘weird old soul,’ to ‘loud, temperamental, and rude.’ I became the stereotypical image of the mentally ill child — ripping out hair, scratching at scabs until they got infected, and trying to make myself throw up after being scolded. These would later be recognized as panic attacks.
When summer came, I was scared that everything happening back at home — the worries — would follow me into the field, but part of me wished it would. I wanted anything that could help clarify the situation at home, make it real. However, going to the camp just added a layer of unfamiliarity to something I already didn’t understand.
No one from the rest of the family knew or talked about the anger from the city. In fact, it felt like a secret. Usually when there’s danger, we warn each other, but I felt unsure about even mentioning this. This isn’t uncommon, unfortunately.
I never talked about it once, not until a couple of years ago, when my dad brought it up during a summer afternoon in the backyard.
“Oh god. The amount of times I wanted to actually call the police on that guy?” he said through clenched teeth. “He was a son of a bitch.”
It knocked me back a step. That was the first time someone mentioned my mom’s ex since I saw him last — since he hurt her last. All of the sudden, it was outside of just my head.
Don’t water the worry tree, Em.
But we’re losing track of the story. I need to tell you about the other time I tried to outrun something at the camp. This time it wasn’t a game.
In the past, the prairies had offered me an invisible security blanket, but this summer it was yanked away.
It had been a typical Saturday dinner. My mom, him, my brother, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins all gathered at the same cabin, sat at the same table, ate the same food. A little later, the kids would quietly disperse to go do something more entertaining than listening to the adults talk. This time it was drawing.
His son had been with us that weekend. He was 13. A bit of a gloater, but harmless. The son had made the grave mistake, though, of leaving his things scattered on the table when we called it a night. The mess annoyed everyone — especially my mom.
Once we (me, my brother, his son, my mom, and him) were in our own place, away from everyone else who now sat around the fire, the yelling began.
His son was crying in his pillow, and I was starting to feel weird and fuzzy. That is when he raised both arms and shoved — and here is where my memory blacks out, but as soon as it comes back I do recall trapping myself in the tiny trailer bathroom while he hurt my mom.
I stayed sitting on the toilet seat with my head pressed fervently into the slightly rotted wall. My mom opened the door. Her eyes were glazed, looking almost through me.
“Go out there,” she said, and jutted a finger somewhere — away. “…and get help.”
Running down to the fire with the gravel and sand sending odd sensations from my feet up to my brain, I felt excited and heroic in a way I never had before. The black, overwhelming darkness felt like a tube. It delivered so much pressure from both sides that I was squeezed toward my destination with no control over where I was heading.
Behind me was noise. Beside me, nothing but tall grass, ahead of me, the gentle crackling of sparks on wood and the booze-induced haze of friendly laughter. It was so close, the familiarity. The gentle arms of the family were a jog away, even though they hadn’t understood what was happening in the old walls of our cabin.
I got to the fire. “They’re fighting.”
My throat closed up — feeling like it was laced with pins.
They got the message. The cat tumbled ungracefully out of the bag, and it was all real. I saved the day, I guess. It didn’t feel that way.
My younger brother was more shaken than I was. I let the adults comfort him while I stayed to the side with my arms wrapped around my torso. I felt nothing, oddly, for some time after. It was TV static. My uncle drove him the entire 45 minute ride home to the city at that late hour.
He had taught me how to ride a bike.
Mentally I’m there, in the little clearing between the garden and the welcome sign. I slowly fall off my bike and he helps me back up. I busted open a part of my foot that afternoon. The sharp bike pedal pierced my skin, after falling for what felt like the 14th time.
I still have the scar. When I scratch at it, the skin feels fuzzy and numb.
He taught me how to ride a bike, but he also hit his partner, my mom, in front of her kids. I still don’t understand how someone could do that. That night was the last time I ever saw him.
I only ran a couple seconds to get help. The campfire is only five adult strides away from the barn, but those strides felt like forever. But I got there, didn’t I?
Did Rémy and I actually run faster than that rain? No. We made it back to our grandparents’ cabin without getting soaked, but it was probably just good timing. The clouds unleashed hell the second after we squeezed our way inside. This perspective is not as magical, but we reached our destination.
Going to the river to spend part of the summer in 2022 was a blanket of quiet.
Now, I am a legal adult, in the middle of college, too old to go play a game but too young to get why things like mowing the lawn are so important. So, I sit on a plastic chair with an alcoholic cooler awkwardly planted between my knees at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
I’m not running anymore. What is there to run away from?
I idly look out to the stark, endless prairies full of dead animals, busted water bottles and dog muck. It was there when my great-grandpa came back from the war, when my family grew up on the farm, when I was born, when I was different, and it will probably still be there when I die. It’s home to me, but like any form of nature, it’s timeless and uncaring. If I left and never came back it wouldn’t care. I would, though. I like it here.
The barn is so pretty now. My mom put an intense deal of care into it, and she’s happy. I can tube down the river without a life jacket. My dog, Jack, knows when he’s travelling too far down the road and comes back before anyone can even think to shoot at him.
Jack nudges his soggy, grey face into my side. He was just swimming, but I scratch his head anyway.
My brain is still very scared, but I’m not running anymore. I’m sitting languidly and waiting for my family to begin throwing their chairs near the fire pit.
They usually throw the first log in just before dinner, so I’m almost there. Patient and unconcerned, I open my drink and wonder what stories I’ll hear tonight.
Artwork by Emma Honeybun