Authors: Joanne Horniman
So this is my story. It will be about birth and death and love and sex, and I will tell it very quiet and slow, so if you want big bangs of action and excitement it's best you stop reading right now.
I will make it something after my own heart, tender and dark, a little candlelight novel, started this late summer night as my lover and baby daughter sleep in the big bed in the corner and my sister Kate leans thoughtful and sleepless against the railing of the dark verandah outsideâ¦and I can tell already it won't even be a novel, but a tell-all memoir of my whole life so farâ¦ but didn't Jack Kerouac write that we have got to
N THE BEGINNING
was my mother.
She was so young when I was born, still in her teens, and I know this not only from her age on my birth certificate, but from my memories of the way she
. Even before I was born I knew the sound of her voice, speaking
singing (and she sang often, in an ancient, eternal way, the way women since time immemorial must have sung on the edges of riverbanks at dusk). I knew all the ways she moved and walked and danced. I was her intimate, privy to every one of her moods. When I was born, she wailed like a banshee; her screams were horrendous. Well, childbirth
. I know that now.
The day I was born it rained, grey and soft and steady, with great streaks of water running down the windows like tears. Birth was my entry into what I consider heaven: the world, with all its weather, water, extraordinary skies, hallowed ground (for all of Earth is holy) and people, with their ambiguous, beating hearts.
When the midwife put me into my mother's arms, she said my name (âSophie!') as though she'd always known me. We gazed at each other for a long time. I know it's customary for new mothers to have a thing about fingers and toes; first of all the big question of whether they are all there, and then the wonder that a fingernail could be so perfect and tiny (if only our mothers could look at our tiny, perfect hearts!). But my mother did none of that. She simply held me and looked into my face. âOh, she's beautiful!' she said.
I was born in my grandfather's house on the side of a wild mountain, and my early years on that wet, lush mountainside affected me for life. It's no wonder I have an affinity with water, and with overcast skies. I am at my best in a storm or a flood. I relish the run-down, the faded, the threadbare. I love twilight.
My mother sang to me and read to me before I could understand a word of any of it. I suckled with one hand tangled in her long hair and the other on her breast. Her body was the boundary of my world. I remember her so well: the smell of her and the coarse texture of her heavy black hair, and the way she walked with me on her hip, fearlessly striding through the world as if she owned it, trailing the hem of her long skirt through the dirt. I loved her so much.
She blew me streams of kisses when she went out, stepping into whichever burbling, asthmatic old car was fetching her away, her hem more often than not caught in the door and flapping farewell long after she turned her face away from me.
Sometimes she took me with her. I was there when Kate was conceived, waking one hot afternoon on the sticky back seat of a car to the sound of my mother engaged in something very urgent and pleasurable in the front. They were sitting upright, and I saw her face in profile, her mouth and eyes wide open, wearing an expression I couldn't recognise. Her cries subsided with a little sob, and I put my thumb in my mouth and stretched out one leg to push against the back of the seat, smiling because I knew she was happy. She turned around and looked at me as though she'd forgotten I was there, saying in wonder, âSophie â¦are you awake?' She stretched out one arm to touch me. The man she was with, whom I would later come to call my father, shot me a look across the back of the seat and said, âHey, kid!'
And though I had no idea that such a thing as a sister even existed, somehow I knew that from now on I wouldn't be alone.
Whenever my mother went out and left me behind, my grandfather looked after me. I remember his face, grinning into mine. He was strong and wiry and brown and wrinkled. I remember his bare back, and the movement of his shoulders as he carried me around, my legs clasped around his neck.
Before I was two he'd already given me the names for things. Pawpaws, avocados, cherry tomatoes. Macadamia nuts! We foraged and ate these things in the wild of the garden, like savages. I sat astride his shoulders and said the words with bold gestures of my arms, commanding him to take me to them. âMacadamia nuts!'
I sat on a low stool in his workshop, which was immense and rough-hewn. The sides were open to the view â and the weather â it was almost always raining. I watched him craft wood into sculptures. The smell of it! â his leather apron, streaked with dark sap, the hammering of his tools, the force, the rhythm, all this I remember.
The walls of his house were of stone and timber (both taken from the mountain we clung to; we were like mountain goats, living on a steep slope), and every wall was curved. Outside, waterspouts were shaped like dragons' heads. Stone faces bloomed amongst the ferns. Elaborately fashioned plant pots sprouted immense cacti. The winding paths were coloured lozenges of concrete â red, black, grey.
I remember an immense old chair; its graceful wooden legs had the air of belonging to an elegant animal â a greyhound â so that sitting in it gave a feeling of borrowed power. My grandfather often cooked outdoors over an open fire. I feel sure I must have slept wrapped in animal skins in that place, though mostly we went around almost naked, it was so hot. The very air exuded moisture. Moving through it was like swimming.
He told me the tale of Jack and the beanstalk, and it seemed real and very possible, in that fairytale setting. Climbing any one of the plants in my grandfather's garden might lead you to the giant's castle, and the hen that laid the golden egg. I found a nest made in the ferns by our black hen, and a perfect, smooth brown egg. In that magical place, I crouched on the ground and tapped the egg carefully on a rock. It was golden inside, and I tipped it into my mouth and swallowed it.
I ate the Golden Egg!
But my mother took me away from all that.
Once upon a time I lived with my mother in paradise and I lost it all.
When my sister Kate was born at last, and grown to almost three years old, she and I were abandoned. First our mother went away (or so Michael O'Farrell told us), and then he abandoned us too.
If it hadn't been for Kate, who was sweet and compliant and eager for love, I am sure Lil would not have kept us with her. I was too savage and unruly and strange for anyone but my mother to properly love.
The day Michael O'Farrell left, it was clear to me that he wasn't coming back, and I was pleased. Before bed, Lil removed our filthy clothes and popped us into the bath. And it was while she was washing my mop of hair she discovered something tangled in its bush. She fetched scissors to cut it free, but I bit her, I so fiercely wanted to keep it. She only said sternly, âThat's enough, madam!' And at last produced the tiny doll I'd put in my hair for safekeeping, a plump naked infant with drawn-up legs and dimpled outstretched hands, its tiny hands and feet still bound with ropes of my black hair.
âWhat else are you keeping on your person, then?' she said, never guessing that I sometimes hid a small white pebble in my fanny. My body was the best hiding place for anything I wanted to keep safe.
If only I hadn't been torn from my mother. I ought never to have taken my fingers from her hair as I lay in her arms. That way, wherever she had gone, she'd have had to take me with her.
Lil lived in a house called Samarkand, which was like a house of dreams, with many rooms and meanings and odd encounters. The first morning, Lil took us into the faded old kitchen for breakfast, but before she could begin cooking, I took an egg, cracked it, and tipped it into my mouth (still searching for that magic, golden egg).
Without even letting on that she'd noticed what I'd done, Lil poached some eggs and slid them onto hot buttered toast with a sprinkle of parsley. And Kate and I sat up at the kitchen table and ate our eggs neatly as though we had been born to this life. (Kate: her pale, china-doll face small and solemn, her fine red hair that never seemed to grow lying flat and obedient to her scalp. Me: my bottom lip jutting out with defiance, my eyes challenging, hair to my waist as black as sin and as complicated.)
âThere,' said Lil. âDoesn't an egg taste better cooked than raw?'
(It did, but felt not nearly as magical.)
That night, when Lil went to kiss us goodnight, Kate held up her face eagerly, her lips ready, but I turned to face the wall. If I couldn't have my mother, I'd have nobody.
Lil never stopped offering.
I remember the night I gave in. I snatched her kiss and then turned away in shame. The need for love is like that for food. If you're hungry and it's offered to you, why not simply reach out and take it?
You can take, but you can choose not to give back. For a long time I took and took Lil's kisses like a starving person, but my heart had been pledged to my mother.
S USUAL AFTER
my morning walk, I climbed the steps of Samarkand with Hetty on my hip and went to the kitchen to start the breakfasts. There were only two guests that day. They sat at separate tables, the man reading the morning newspaper, and the woman looking out the window of the breakfast room towards the river, her hand held up beside her mouth as though she had seen the unspeakable.
The man had almost no hair and a bulbous nose textured like a cauliflower. The woman had a squint, and deep lines running from the edge of her nose to the corners of her mouth, giving her an air of severe disappointment. Both of them had a physiognomy that told of another place and century â Victorian England perhaps; or a place where everyone was wounded or scarred in some way.
I served them and went back to the kitchen to feed Hetty her egg, feeling ineffably sad for people. How lonely, how flawed, how doomed everyone was. I thought how Hetty, in all her fresh perfection, would some day bear sorrow of some kind, while I, who am scarred inside where you cannot see, look ripe and ready for plucking.
I sat a plate onto the tray of Hetty's chair, and spooned egg into her little bird mouth (how willingly and trustingly she opened it for me!). A fresh surge of love for her overcame me. Her plump hands, the rings of fat round her neck, the way she flexed her toes as she ate!
âYou're nice. You're
nice, did you know that?' I told her, firmly. Hetty put her head on one side, and smiled.
I thought about the poetry of kitchens. There seemed to be very little of it written, but there was so much to be captured, and a kitchen is the heart of the house, a place of pleasure and work. Not all of it is beautiful, but why should poetry only speak of beauty?
There's the begrimed stove-top, the splatters that tell of the pleasures of eating and the accompanying dreariness of cleaning up. I would like to see a poem on the not-so-secret squalor of under-the-sink, a poem about the moist shimmer of fat that accumulates under the griller after lamb chops have been cooked, and the astonished twinkle of a clean stainless steel sink. I love the smooth, cool body of the refrigerator against which I lay my cheek in hot weather, and the dance of the trembling, collapsible ironing board, the toasty smell of its warm cover. There are the worn rungs of chair legs, paint rubbed away by restless feet. If you're after beauty, there is the amber stream of hot tea coming from the pot.
And there, up in the corner of the coloured glass window, a little spider sits protecting her egg sac, the most hidden and domestic scene of all.
âKitchen is a
word,' I told Hetty that morning. Kitchens always remind me of green, perhaps because these walls are green. And I love the word
. Sometimes I think it's my favourite word.
âKitchen, kitchen, kitchen.'
Hetty blew egg at me and smiled. See how already my baby loved words, even though she couldn't speak them yet?
After we'd eaten our breakfast, I took her to Lil's room. Pulling back the curtains from the window, I pictured myself as some nineteenth-century housemaid rousing her mistress. Light flooded in, and I could see that Lil was already awake. She had been lying there in the darkened room, not moving. She shielded her eyes and exclaimed, âThe light! Oh, the light!'
And for kindness I frisked the curtains back over the window a little.
Kate had gone away to university at the beginning of the year, and since then Lil had taken to lying-in in the mornings and leaving the breakfasts to me. At various moments of the day she was prone to wondering what âmy Katie' was doing now, and I had taken to doing the same. (
It's nine a.m. Wednesday. Kate, who has stayed up almost all night writing an essay on the Romantic poets, stumbles out to the shared kitchen to find that one of the people who also have a room in the house has breakfasted on squid. Again. She throws open the window to let in fresh â or other-than-squid â air and stands for a moment contemplating a back lane filled with garbage and stray cats.
Perching on the sill with Hetty on my knee, I peered between the curtains to the laneway that ran beside our house. (
We are two sisters, seven hundred kilometres apart, both currently contemplating insalubrious laneways
.) It had started to rain, and there was a dog in the Lismore lane, sniffing round the wooden stumps of the house over the way. The road was primitive, just a walkway really, made of earth. Because it seemed to be always raining, it almost never dried out, and it was this smell of damp that pervaded our house. Mould grew on almost every surface. I fully expected that ferns would sprout from the cornices one day.