Anna Kortschak is an emerging writer who is frequently mobile. She has recently returned to Australia after almost twenty itinerant years in the Americas, Europe and the UK. Anna was runner up in the 2019 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing and winner of the 2019 Spring Nowhere Magazine Travel Writing Competition. Her writing and photos have been published in Nowhere Magazine, The Other Hundred, The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (3rd Ed.) and various other print and online publications. With a background in visual and performing arts Anna has worked extremely variously but most passionately – a aside from her writing – on a number of community development story-telling projects in Australia and internationally.
Pieces of Nothing
The child is standing alone on the side of the sand pit, humming tunelessly. She shifts her weight from foot to foot. Her gaze is blank and unfocussed. She is not playing a game. She is just standing there waiting for time to move on.
She is alone and being alone makes her hungry. She bites her arm, intently studying the crooked crescent indented in the flesh, livid white and bruise blue. She wants to feel something.
She cannot see inside herself. She believes she has swallowed a stone.
She is a small child. Skinny, ribs visible, blonde wispy hair, eyes wide and surprising black, all pupil. Difficult, they say. A difficult child. Given to sudden rage or tears. Sullen. Lashing out and then fleeing. A secretive child.
There was a girl who hid her heart among stones to keep it safe. She tied her heart to a string but lost hold of the string. When she went to recover it she mistook her heart for a stone, a stone for her heart. Heavy and cold. Hard.
Once lost, what next?
A series of endeavours, all doomed, all heartless.
If I am to write a story it has to start with this child; the girl who has lost her heart. She is not remarkable, she is not especially good or kind. She is just like any child, a little grubby, bony knees and wispy hair. Perhaps she is rather small for her age.
A fairy tale needs a hero but no-one appears to rescue the child from her fate and a series of evils befall the girl. First she loses the power of speech. No-one can hear her speak.
There are others but I (or is it the girl?) cannot see them clearly. There is a mother, a stepfather, a brother. Many others. She is surrounded by these people but she cannot see them and they do not touch her. They are insubstantial, see-through and slippery, ungraspable. Bewitched, I guess. No help there.
I’m talking as if I don’t know these people but I have to confess an interest. Let me try to clarify the situation. My mother. My stepfather. There are brothers and sisters and they are my brothers and sisters. And the circle will widen. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A veritable host. Even my father will appear, if I wait long enough.
And I, too, have become multiple. I am the storyteller in this tale. And that is fair. Everyone must have their turn to speak. But what to do, then, with the child? She is me, and not me. And she is the greatest unknown. The most difficult of all to discern in the bewildering fog.
I beg you for indulgence as I try to find a way to accommodate this mute child who struggles with silence and nausea, who believes she is poisonous and that everything she touches dies.
As I try to excavate memory I constantly ask myself, what is true? One must, of course, but I find that there is no concrete answer to the question. There is no indisputable truth to be brought into the light of day, no facts that can be matter-of-factly reported from the past which, from the most certain perspective we have, quite simply does not exist.
My stepfather, for example, can say, that never happened. If I’d picked you up by your ear it would have ripped clean off your head. And I will be silenced by his logic and his convincing certainty. Only days later will an image that has always hung dimly suspended in my mind, unaccounted for, pop suddenly to the surface.
(The child picks, for days, at a crusty line of scabs in that soft crease where the skin of the ear attaches to the skin that covers the bony shell of the skull.)
It is unfortunate that it is my step-father that is the first figure to come forward. But there it is.
And here is his refrain:
She was a child, he says. She didn’t understand. She is mistaken.
What is strange is that I cannot remember my mother’s face and that there is no point in time that I can see us together.
But of course nothing is absolute and I must immediately contradict myself.
I do in fact remember that once I spent an afternoon with her on a lake in a small rowing boat. Even so, I have no sense of her, or my own, physical presence on that occasion. I cannot, for example, remember which one of us rowed the boat.
It is only my imagination which creates the picture of a boat moving across the water as the shouts and noise from the shore fade away, hears the creak of the heavy wooden oars moving in the rowlocks, the slap of water against the hull, the quiet rustle of wind in trees and reeds, light playing over a shining expanse of water.
Where does this child live?
What comes to mind are houses full of silence: in memory, always empty. A series of disconnected spaces. Rooms without exit, hallways that lead nowhere, blank windows without vista.
Footsteps on the polished wooden floorboards, darkness, a doorway.
My grandmother’s house, where my mother spent her childhood, was on Castle Street and it seemed to me that the street had been named for the house which was, therefore, a castle. Certainly, it was a house possessed by a sense of grandeur. It pointed to a noble history.
Decades later, it is in England, that I will find my dead grandmother close to me, hovering at my shoulder, or seated on the other side of a table watching me. If she had a message for me then she could not find a way to make it explicit but it is no wonder she came to me there in England. Her faraway garden, in Australia, was a half-acre England of spring bluebells and cherry blossom trees, violets and pansies, clipped lawns and deciduous oak and birch. All England, except for the tree we called the Mother Tree, a box gum, home to giant emperor moth larvae, jewelled, green, and fatter than a child’s finger.
The house and garden were bounded by a cypress hedge, dense and dark, fragrant. It is in the hedge that my brother arrives. The Hedge was capitalised in our minds, as the name of any unexplored continent would be, and we would disappear inside it, my brother and I. Sometimes we emerged scratched and sticky with cypress resin to walk along the neatly clipped upper surface which formed an inviting green pathway but with a misjudged step an unwary child would suddenly vanish again below the smooth surface, plunged back into the harsh twiggy dusty interior, trapped and struggling.
The house, this enchanted castle, is spell-bound. Always silent. No laughter ringing through it. No raised voices, not in anger or in song.
Tick. Tock. Grandfather clock.
Wide hallways with patterned oriental rugs that form maps of unknown territory, a jungle, perhaps, or wide river plains, islands; a mutable terrain inhabited by serpents and mythic creatures, topography to be explored on endless tedious afternoons.
The child is often there, in the care of her grandmother. Can we perhaps catch a glimpse of them together? What is it they are doing?
They are sitting opposite each other at a table, separated by a wide expanse of dark polished wood. The child is labouring at the task she has been set. A peach, rosy and fragrant, sits on a tiny china plate carefully set between a silver knife and fork. The implements would be small and delicate in adult hands but the child clutches the opalescent mother-of-pearl handles clumsily. She must peel and eat the peach without touching its tender flesh with her fingers.
The fruit rolls and slides on the plate as the child struggles to impale it. Once it is secured she works to push the knife point beneath delicate downy skin and strip it from the flesh. Finally, she has a hard won morsel on the slender tines of the fork. She pauses to take a spoonful of sugar from a silver bowl and scatters it across the plate. She dips the scrap of fruit in the crystals and conveys it to her mouth.
Her grandmother watches impassive.
I never saw my mother and my father together. The possibility was inconceivable.
I knew my father was from elsewhere and for a long time it seemed to me that the place he came from must be called The War.
My mother sometimes told people that my paternal grandfather was a Nazi but she did not mean anything in particular by it. She just thought it was something interesting to say. I would not even remember it except that my sister still repeats it, as though it were fact, today. My half-sister. It is not her grandfather she is talking about. She phrases her statement as a question: Your grandfather had a Nazi uniform, didn’t he?
On weekends my brother and I were pushed out the front door onto the veranda where this grandfather, my father’s father, stood waiting. Formal, in pleated trousers, collar and tie, hair smooth and shiny with Brylcreem, he would lean stiffly across the threshold to shake hands with my stepfather standing inside the door.
How do you do? Sunday? Yes, Sunday.
We would climb into my grandfather’s immaculate fawn and white Holden Kingswood and speed away, my brother and I cannoning from one side of the car to the other across the beige vinyl bench-seat as my grandfather cursed the Australian drivers. Blod-ee eedi-yot! You blod-ee eedi-yot!
My paternal grandparent’s house was not silent, but the languages were foreign. Here my brother and I were always collective: the children. Die Kinder sind heir, my nanna would say on the phone to her friends, and we knew she was talking about us.
We went to this house to wait for my father to arrive.
At my grandparent’s house my brother and I were always addressed in English but adult conversation took place above our heads in a babble of other tongues. We knew that the alien words which hummed and roared and wailed in the air of my grandparent’s house were all of The War. The War was all encompassing and without location but there was also a more distant place, never talked about directly, hinted at in picture books and old photos, postcards and the arrival of pale blue airmail envelopes.
Czechoslovakia. The child wrote the strange word, next to her foreign surname, over and over on pieces of paper which she pushed into a tiny glass bottle that was one of the treasures on the mantelpiece in the bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house. She poked the secret messages through the vessel’s narrow mouth with a pencil and rammed them down. Over and over, until the blue green bottle was packed solid with crushed paper.
A land of castles. Mountains. Woods. Trees, tender in the springtime. Bright streams and sunny meadows. Wild flowers and berries at the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon.
But at night, in her dreams, she wandered a lonely wooded place, bare bony arms of trees raised up to a lowering dark sky, the tenebrous air thick with nightfall and snowfall. Black on black. This was the landscape of her dreams. Snow falling ceaselessly in darkness. Night after night the child trod these woods alone.
The possibility of physically going to this place was nonsensical. There was an unfathomable period of time in which the child’s nanna was absent from her Balwyn home. Months passed, during which occasional postcards with pictures of unknown cities arrived in the mail. The pedestrian images of bridges over rivers and municipal buildings baffled the girl.
Her nanna eventually returned, with gifts; a tiny carved wooden dog and a china Siamese cat. The child studied them minutely for clues and, although they explained nothing, she decided to treasure them. When she was not playing with the cat and dog the child carefully placed them on the mantelpiece next to her talismanic bottle. Soon the cat’s ears were chipped and the dog had lost a paw. The child cherished the little dog, especially, with an all-consuming love. She often carried it with her, in her pocket, until one day it vanished.
She searched in the school yard over and over again and scanned the ground at her feet with every step of the long walk home, through the suburban streets, across the park, along the railway line, over Prospect Hill Road and then finally down the street in which she returned each afternoon to the house where her mother and stepfather lived. Day after day she traversed this route searching for the lost token of the lost place.
The child and her brother sit on either side of their nanna on a low red brick wall at the front of a house in a quiet tree-lined street. They are counting cars.
Which one of you can guess how many cars will pass before your father comes?
Three. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
If he had arrived he would have tumbled out of some car, wearing no shoes, dirty white moleskin trousers tattered and patched, a soft brown leather jacket with the elbows out. He would have lounged lazily on the square modern couch, nursing a glass of red wine while the table was set. He would have sat wreathed in smoke, grey flaky tubes of ash trembling above the smouldering ember of a filterless cigarette.
And sometime, maybe after lunch, if she had been able to stand close enough to his chair, he might have turned to her and rumpled her hair and called her his beetle, or skinny rabbit.
So, here we are. Here we are with a handful of shards, pretty and sharp. What do they tell us?
As the story-teller, I realise that I am in a privileged position. A privileged position, but one also filled with difficulties and danger. I do not want to abuse my power and I recognise the seductive temptation to overstep the mark. I can see that what I am searching for is a story that will mend all the rents in the fabric of the universe. An impossible task, I know. I know.
I want to hear the child speak.
I have to tread carefully because I have so much more information at my disposal than she did. So much more. But I do promise to try to limit myself to the things that can be vouched for.
What I know for certain is that the child grows up and I know what kind of stories that have been told of her. Listen to some of the names she has been called:
the child / a girl (poison child)
dropper of bombshells (family terrorist)
liar / junkie / whore (the poltergeist)
squatter / criminal (trouble maker)
victim / survivor (the hungry ghost)
a trapeze artist (sweet falling angel / sweet f.a.)
How did she come to know herself differently? Could it be explained like this?
The child was a sleep-walker. She would be found wandering the house at night, rummaging in cupboards. On one occasion she left the house by the front door and ran down the street. But she does not remember these somnambulisms. They have been reported to her.
But the child remembers one incident. She was at her grandmother’s place in the country. A number of other children were there and they were sleeping outdoors in tents. The tents were pitched within the confines of a grassy, long disused, stockyard. There were probably five or six children present – these details do not matter – the older children, no doubt, with the toddlers and babies remaining with the grown ups in the big tin shed. The children must have behaved as children do in such circumstances, telling scary stories, bickering, joking, teasing. I remember none of that. Eventually they all would have slept.
And what the child – who possibly is the same person that I am – can to this day recall is waking to find herself alone under the wide starry sky in the paddock half way down towards the rocky gully. She is standing in her pyjamas, barefoot on frosty ground. She has woken because she is standing on a thistle in the grass. There she is, a child, standing on a dark hillside under the infinite sky and the moment has a startling clarity that she stores carefully inside herself as she makes her way back up the steep slope and climbs the five foot wooden post and paling fence and enters the tent and finds her sleeping bag again amongst the still slumbering children.
She recognises the size of the night. She is not afraid.