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Even if I’m not allergic
Liz Sutherland (University of New England, Australia)



Content note: Please note this memoir contains references and themes relating to intimate partner violence, colonisation, and violence towards animals.



For two or three weeks each year, in the marrow of British Columbia (BC), in one of the biggest remaining wild rivers in the world, salmon jump. Hundreds of miles swum to their genesis. Yesterdays and tomorrows, up against the current, the rocks. Instinctual. The water falling never stays the same for more than a moment, ruthlessly abiding by gravity drop by drop.

The river lies.

You told me you were one way, that you would stay the same.

“I’m where you belong,” you said. “In here, this is your home.”

Against all my instincts, I trusted your rapidity. I stopped swimming and time suspended; that liminal moment when the droplets hang. When all was shining luminescence in the sun.

“I trust you,” I said. “And I think, maybe, I love you.”

The magic words; surge commenced. Swept away, face down, belly up. Carried copious miles over trickling months. Deceitful incisors tore my flesh scale by scale. Eaten alive by a river I don’t recognise.


I refuse to type his name. He will be referred to as he or you or ex. Sometimes he’s liar or river. Ventriloquist or bee. Perhaps at others he’s oil on my skin that I can’t wash off. Slick, his words run me down.

When our relationship ended, I was leagues from where I used to be, needed to be. 4000 kilometres, to be exact. That’s how far Sockeye salmon travel from home, from where they spawned in the Clearwater River in Wells Gray Provincial Park, and back again. They journey to Alaska, evading predators in and out of the water, in search of something. It’s a long way to go and perhaps even they do not know. But they turn tail and return three years hence, their flaming russet scales sizzling in the August sun. They feel the pull of their ancestry from this land, these waters.

No famished grizzlies shared the shoreline with me the day I joined them, flinging ourselves up and out of the river’s taut grip. But dozens of on-lookers watched, jeered, and photographed as we fruitlessly jumped up the waterfall. We are very small, after all. It’s easy to be pushed around by one of the largest waterfalls in BC.

It’s easy to lose our breath above the waves. These gills have served me for so long, rightly or wrong, that I’m not sure my lungs know where to begin. But they say everything begins with one small step; at the beginning of our lives, we take one small breath. So, I keep on swimming and keep on jumping and know that I’m not the only one.

A pivotal play in the abuser’s handbook is to make their target feel alone. Isolate them so thoroughly that they wouldn’t dream of telling another person what’s going on. But look! Thousands of others paddle with me. Wade and dive and submerge and try again until finally, washed-out but galvanised by our collective strength, we soar.


The first time he reprimanded me in front of other people I felt like I was six years old again. But really, I was twenty-seven. The music festival wasn’t my vibe in the least—electronic music and ravers who looked like they’d been dipped in a vat of glitter (good for them, just not for me). It was his usual haunt, with a dozen or so of his friends in tow. We were all sheltered beneath a huge tarpaulin; a multicoloured big-top tent, and I was the clown. Baggy pants and oversized shoes, disgusting.

“Ew, no, I won’t touch you,” he said, then jeered and laughed and shuffled away because why would he want to be close to a jester when he could make a fool of me instead?

Some of his friends were genuinely kind, but no one said a thing. From where I sat at the bottom of the tent, the ringleader had them all whipped. Because he’s a craftsman, a performer; he knows how to please, says all the right things. When we first started dating, I asked the usual compatibility questions.

I’m polyamorous and had another partner when we began. Made sure he knew it would be fine if he were seeing other people too. He told me he wasn’t. In my mind, the primary part of ethical non-monogamy is, you guessed it, the ethical part. He dated others in secret, fucked others without a condom in secret, put me at sexual health risk in secret. He smoked, he ate animals, he lied and lied and lied. What else?

I’m on a hiking trail in Newfoundland, deserted save for myself and the lingering presence of him. I transform into a tree, tall and wooden. I’m one of the many, these great pines with pins and needles sinking into our arms. He chops me down, whittles artfully. I’m a ventriloquist’s doll, trained to regurgitate his every word, his every whim. A puppet, a clown, being thrown around by the whimsical tug at my strings. Propped up by the veins beneath his hands with a clamour against the rings. He barely speaks to me anymore, why waste his breath? I taste his words before I spit them out—polished, shiny, yet used.

I’m one of the many thousands of trees cut at the knees each year, even though Canada has some of the best deforestation rates worldwide. Colonisation isn’t some long-ago event that happened once and now we’ve all moved on. It lingers in unjust policies, destruction of cultural practices, and destabilisation of ecological systems. The very bones, hips, thighs of the earth.

He inhabited, consumed my body. Just as I’m contributing to the ongoing colonisation of these places I’m travelling. These lands of so-called Canada have been in continual conversation with First Peoples. Holding vigil as clammy, pale hands claw over her body (my hands). My body (his hands). This isn’t my place; it doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to it. But nor do I belong anywhere, not even my own body, marked by him.

Gnawing gums sew their roots into patchwork earth, parched riverbeds await the next rain. Purpling dusk tries (fails) to cover the bruise left from his westward journey down my thighs. Event horizons masking signs.


How do I regrow roots and take to the road, find my way home? Destroy my life in Gadigal/Sydney and fly to Canada, of course. But not before his true self is revealed.

Back in the beginning, he called himself ‘a lover, not a fighter’ with such sincerity. He respected non-human animals so much that on the ‘very rare’ times he ever consumed them, he caught them himself.

As a vegetarian at the time, transitioning to vegan, I drew a boundary. “I don’t want to be around when you catch or eat animals,” I’d said. And at first, that was fine.

Until one day we were on a weekend away, three and a half hours north at his friend’s holiday house, travelling in his car.

“Let’s go for a swim?” his friend suggested.

A fifteen-minute drive to the beach, I sat on the sand to read my book, and they all went swimming. I didn’t see him behind the rocks of the cove until he emerged a chapter and a half later with a lobster in each fist.

Their spindly legs waved at me ashore, confusion surely tilting their heads. He threw them in a bucket in the boot and slammed it shut.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, struggling to keep my voice from breaking.

“Dinner,” he said. “Get in, I need to get these into the freezer.”

That’s the way to kill lobsters, apparently. You don’t spear them, that would ruin the meal. You just leave them in the darkness of the stuffy car, wondering why they’re out of the ocean, away from their kin, suffocation setting in. You bring them inside and up the creaking stairs, close the freezer door on their final curtain call. Wait until the cold stops their hearts, the rest of their organs, and hope it’s done by the time you throw them in the boiling pot (you don’t want to hear them scream, after all).

He couldn’t (wouldn’t) understand why I was upset. I knew him, didn’t I? I’d signed up to love every part of him.

“I’m a hunter by nature, all humans are,” he said. “We’re meant to hunt and kill our own food. It makes me feel alive.”

I’m ashamed to say that wasn’t the final straw for me. There was one revelation yet. The festival, second to last night, and he has a plan. He’s done LSD at this festival every year for the past half dozen (and dozens of times in between, it came out since).

“You’ll be safe, I’ll be here the whole time,” he said.


The sensory inputs are too overwhelming: multiple stages all playing discordant electronica; steamy, muddy earth after spring rain; thousands of bright and shiny people unable to keep their hands to themselves. When I finally snap, I ask him to come back to the tent with me, wait it out. But a river spills from my eyes and won’t stop, 4000 kilometres to be exact. What a buzzkill, that’s not what he came for. So, he left.

If you’ve ever done LSD, you’ll know what that meant. Alone in a tiny, enclosed tent, with four different electronic beats blaring and flashing lights shining through the meagre fabric. It meant that hours became an eternity. The blow-up mattress became an escalator, spiralling down to hell. I don’t even believe in the concepts of ‘heaven and hell’, but that night I met the devil and had my eyelids stapled open so I couldn’t blink away the drops of blood as I watched every person I’d ever loved draw their last shuddering breaths.

Then it was time to destroy my life in Gadigal/Sydney and leave the country.


Sometimes I feel like a magpie. Not the feathers or the wings, not the tail, but the love of shiny things. Spatially you lingered at a distance, stationary, tangible, glistening. I came to you, flew from far, looked to see. And what I saw, in all your crystalline hardness, was excruciatingly ordinary, you. Among the un-remarkables that left your mouth, not a single one was, “stay”. Thank you for making it easy for me to walk away.


One of the first things I did in BC was go on a hike in Squamish with two friends. It was one of those off-trail hikes to find a body of water, maybe a waterfall, somewhere nice to sit and meditate and write for a while. On our way back to the campsite, we hiked out roughly the way we’d come in, but of course there was no trail to guide the way. Half the trees had fallen, littered the ground, their decomposing trunks covered in spongy moss. I walked at the back, following my friends’ footsteps over crunching twigs and yellowing leaves. Disaster struck in a single step. My friend in the middle, their foot plunged through the earth straight into a yellowjacket nest. I’ve seen a volcano erupt; this was worse than that. The ghostly touch of a thousand angered men, engorged in wakeful spite. Their sharpened limbs crawling up my body towards the heavens even as I ran.

My first thought when stung on the head (even before I hope I’m not allergic and dead) was you and the thing you said that one time. Correct, you are, as you said, just a bee. The only thing left is a sting when you leave.

That wasn’t the last time my ex haunted me over lands and seas, but it did get easier every time. As I continued to walk through this country, drawing stick-figure maps with my tracks, I eventually came to recognise myself again (in more than just the land). The process of swimming, jumping, fleeing, flying all the way to Canada—one long, drawn-out night of being lost, and I found myself here. In landmarks and coordinates mapping my mended body. I’m here, all of me, finally.

Perhaps there’s something in leaving a place? It’s less like running away, and not about running towards, but arriving. My home wasn’t a place, it wasn’t a wild river in BC, it wasn’t another person. It’s me.

It’s always been me.



Liz Sutherland (they/them) lives on unceded Wurundjeri country. They draw from a decade of advocacy in climate crisis, HIV, Aboriginal health, and domestic violence in their writing and activism. They are studying a Master of Arts (Writing) at the University of New England, Australia and bring narratives of neurodivergent, queer, polyam, trans joy into their writing.

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