On the first Sunday of 2019, Griffith Review returns to Krissy Kneen's prize-winning novella, 'How to preserve a turnip: And other whispers in my genes'.
Published in Griffith Review 58: Storied Lives as a winner of The Novella Project VI, this creative non-fiction novella sees Kneen attempt to unravel the secrets that generations of her family have kept, unpacking her own body: a box of magical secrets inherited from her grandmother and her grandmother’s grandmother.
Krissy Kneen is the award-winning author of the memoir Affection (Text, 2010), the novels Steeplechase (Text, 2013), Triptych (Text, 2011), The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine (Text, 2015), An Uncertain Grace (Text, 2017), Wintering (Text, 2018) and the Thomas Shapcott Award-winning poetry collection Eating My Grandmother (UQP, 2015). She has written and directed broadcast documentaries for SBS and ABC Television.
Kneen was a responding artist for Queensland Theatre Company's production of Hedda and Queensland Art Gallery's Australian Collection in 2018. She is also the playwright in residence at La Boite through 2018/19 and spent three months overseas on an Australia Council self-funded residency researching her memoir project. In addition to being shortlisted for the Stella Prize, Norma K Hemming Award and the Aurealis Award in 2018, Kneen was recently shortlisted for the Screen Queensland / Stan initiative to develop a TV series based on her book An Uncertain Grace.
THE GIRL WAS born to snow. Her mother, hot with the pain of a sideways birth, stumbled into the virgin drift and squatted, barefoot and angry as a nest of wasps. Her screams echoed off the white face of the mountains and back across nearby Trbinc Hill. When the baby ripped its way out of her body there was blood so red and thick that it looked like a horse had been eviscerated before a feast. There was vomit too, yellow as her own anger, and shit, brown as the heart of a hardwood tree.
When her mother reached down and plucked the bright red lump of flesh from the vivid mess there were patches of her bodily fluids eating colourful paths through the snow, virgin no longer. The child opened her eyes wide and her mouth wider and breathed in. In that first breath there was air, filling those tiny new lungs, but with it there was blood and shit and vomit and a shivering taste of the blinding white snow.
This was her first meal. A simple inhalation, her throat muscles working for the first time. Before the child was put to breast there was this more visceral brew, a meal of human waste and snow, fresh from the dirt at the base of a mountain.
A cough, a wail, a sobbing, not because the child would rather milk or rice or bread fresh from an oven – how could she know? – but because the very act of eating was unfamiliar. The stench of her first meal, the texture of it, the taste: all unfamiliar. The baby wheezed, spat, cried, but the fluid had found its way down the tiny throat into the sterile cave of the miniature stomach. The life teeming inside. A colonisation, armies of tiny creatures trudging along the complexities of a digestive tract, pausing only to battle with each other. Tiny genocides, whole families ambushed and murdered. The cultural mix of micro-organisms changing and shifting in the time it took to stretch out a tiny perfect spine and shiver little fingers into fists. The bacteria that melted onto that fresh skin with the snow was ancient life with a history as old as the mountain itself; tiny soldiers that had multiplied on each new blade of grass; immigrant armies dropped by the shit of a bird or carried on cat scat. By the time this baby opened her teeming lungs and uttered a shrill vibrating note there were more bacterial soldiers than there were baby cells inside the tiny form. She was already outnumbered before her life had properly begun.
The mother dragged herself up from the cold snow.
There was a tear and it hurt and bled still, but she was glad to be unburdened. Her stomach sagged. She lifted the child up onto it. The volume of the baby’s cries seemed to belie her size. Such a new thing, such a fragile perfect little human being.
Better out than in.
The mother lay back in the damp chill and hefted the baby onto her swollen breast. The pain of it, like needles stabbing at her nipple, hot and sharp right to the heart of her. No milk yet but the sucking would bring it down. She lay back and closed her eyes and snow fell onto her unfastened shirt and whitened her bloody thighs.
The baby sucked the empty breast and more armies marched in to do battle with the first wave of invaders. Each twisting pathway inside the child was a new battlefield strewn with the dead and the forgotten, heaving with the new victors, an ever-shifting ecosystem trying to come to some sense of balance. Already, in these first minutes.
The mother’s mother and her sister were close behind. The mother’s mother held a blanket and the sister bent to lift the woman and her newborn, and wrap the blanket around them, swaddling the two. This blanket was one that she had been using on her own bed. Her skin cells shimmered among the wool weave, raining down on the baby’s head, more microbial life forms marching into the tiny seashell whorls of her ears, the neat pink folds of her vulva, the smooth cleft between the dimpled cheeks of her bottom. The baby’s newly made grandmother had in turn been wrapped in her own mother’s blanket at the moment of birth. Her own skin teemed with the ancestors of her grandmother’s skin-life, her great-grandmother’s skin-life. You could trace these micro-organisms back to a time when the ancestor first dragged herself out of the prehistoric oceans. All this living history nestling into the peach-soft flesh of a baby girl.
This from the mouth of a new mother; this name to describe all the things this baby has become and will be. More other than self, and this colony within a single body will be the breeding ground for much of what will eventually be inside me, more than a century from the moment of this birth.
Anastazija, my grandmother’s grandmother. Anastazija, who bore Perina, who bore Dragitca who bore Wendy, who bore me, Krissy. Krissy Kneen.
Anastazij means resurrection and, true to her name, bits of her genetic material – and the descendents of the bacteria from that moment of her birth – still march their armies around my lower intestine, fit and healthy and ready, always, for battle.
IF I OPEN my eyes the light is solid, like water in a pool only thicker, viscous, jelly-like. And it has texture too, a certain grittiness, as if the jelly hasn’t been mixed evenly or has only set in some places and is still thin in others. The jelly has a colour, or a tone. It is bright, not like sunlight because sunlight always seems gentle – a warm yellow, the colour of flowers in a field. This is silvery, bright as a mirror, bright like a fluorescent bulb. It is more intense at the top left edge of my vision and, beneath, there are patches of darker brightness. It hurts to open my eyes to it and so I close them. But in the darkness the light turns into movement and I am tumbling into the jelly, buoyed up and sucked down at the same time, my sense of self frayed and stretched. And in this state time seems all wrong. I feel like my eyes have been closed for hours – and yet, when I open them, my grandmother’s hand is still there, still reaching for my forehead as she was hours before, her fingers making incremental progress through the thickness of the air.
‘Feel the heat off my fingers.’ The sound of her voice drills against my temples. She must see that I have flinched at the words, because when she speaks again it is in a whisper.
Her accent is thick. There is dust in it. There is a whiff of snow on mountains and an old-book smell. All of this feels real. The migraine mixes things up like that. She speaks in a way that I can only interpret as scent.
‘Feel the heat,’ she says, and although her hands are not touching my eyes, there is a burning. It starts in the centre of my forehead and stretches out and back. It is burning the synapses of my brain. I smell bacon, hot chips, popcorn. I want to throw up – and there is a bucket ready in case I do. But she takes her hands away just in time, and I know she is shaking them as she makes a sound like an animal huffing.
‘I take the poison into myself,’ she whispers ‘and throw it away.’
The sound of her fingers throwing it away, flicking the pain’s poison in heavy droplets that smack against the wall like hail stones.
‘My grandmother was a witch,’ she says as she places her hands back over my eyes, not quite touching, but close enough so that the burning starts again. ‘I saw her on the mountain fighting with the other witch, my auntie. She was a witch, also. I saw her moving hands, like spells. And the shooting lights. Fireworks. Boom!’
She flicks the poison again, and I hear the ricochet of my sickness against the wall. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.
‘Only one witch wins, you see? Only strongest. Best. Only one wins. And sometimes even with family you have to fight to win because you are the best. My grandmother, your great-great-grandmother, wins. She is strongest. She has this white streak like I do, here, on the top of her head. On my hair. Like you. Already. You have this white here. And you are so small to have the white. Strong magic.’
‘Your great-great-grandmother has this. Then I get the magic. Not my mother. She doesn’t have it. Not your mother. But you. Your white streak. You will have the magic too.’
The burning. The smell of old books. The fizz of fireworks. The smoke of bacon. I breathe into her words. The pain is easing.
‘This sickness you have to live with. I have to live it too. There!’
She throws the poison away. I do feel better.
‘You will be better.’
She pours 4711 cologne onto a handkerchief and I gasp at the cold and the burning as she rests it on my head. The smell of it obliterates the world. There is no bacon, no books, no fireworks.
‘You will sleep now.’
I am tired.
‘You will wake up and you will be well. Yes?’
Yes. I know this is true because my grandmother’s hands have healed me. My grandmother makes everything better. My grandmother has the power of her grandmother before her. I am more dubious about my own link in the genetic chain. I can see my great-great-grandmother fighting her sister. Only one of them will be the powerful one. Maybe my grandmother is wrong about my powers. She is never ever wrong, but just this once she might be. My sister is the strong one. My sister is the one with fists like great mallets and words like a whip. I am too weak, too gentle; I am my mother’s daughter.
The bucket is beside me but this time I won’t need to use it. My grandmother has taken the worst of the pain into her body and thrown it away into the plaster in the wall.
This can’t be my first memory of my grandmother, but all the other stories before this one feel like someone else’s tale. In the midst of pain and in this mythic remaking of myself through her, I am reborn. I become myself. And now, looking back, this is how I begin to remember her.
SLOVENIA HAS A rich culture of folklore and fairytales. One particular creature of lore is the Krivopeta. This creature is one of the wild women of Slovenia. There are several wild women and wild men, but the Krivopete can be identified by their feet, which are turned backwards, facing the place they have just come from.
These wild women with their feet turned backwards can be helpful to a household. They are elemental. They can predict and control the weather. They share their secrets of preserving and cheesemaking with the farmers’ wives, but they keep the most important secrets for themselves. They might teach a man when to plant a crop, but they won’t tell him that a strong and damaging wind is coming. They might teach a girl to make farm cheese, but they won’t tell her that the whey is the most important part of the cheese-making process, and they won’t let her know what she is supposed to do with it. The Krivopeta delights in seeing the stupid girl pour away the most precious part, spilling the whey onto barren ground.
MY GRANDMOTHER WAS obsessed by fairytales. She collected big, thick volumes of them: Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Andersen, Jacobs, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy… She kept them in a room she called the morgue. As a child I imagined that they were books of the dead, like the one she had with the Egyptian god Anubis on the cover, The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Anubis was there to guide us into the underworld after we died, and somehow the books in the morgue were like the corpses of Egyptian kings ready to be resurrected in the land beyond.
My grandmother would take several volumes of fairytales out of the morgue, and open them up on the couch beside her. She would put on her thick glasses and follow each line with her finger. English was not her first language, but all these books were in English. She would read the same story, tracking it from one volume to the next. Perhaps she was looking for similarities, or differences. Perhaps she was looking for the tales from her own childhood: the Krivopeta, the Podmének, the Rojenice and Sojenice – all stories that were absent from these volumes, but also still present as an echo – the same true note keening through disparate cultures. All these stories were kept alive by old women who shared similar life experiences, even if they had no common language. The stories were passed down from swaddled girl-child to swaddled girl-child along with the bacteria passed from skin to skin.
MY GRANDMOTHER TAUGHT me to make cheese. It is a simple thing if you have some milk. Even if the milk is close to the turn.
Heat the milk on the stove till it is almost at boiling point.
Add the juice of a lemon. Take the curdled milk and strain it through cheesecloth or a tea towel.
Lay the cloth in a colander and put the colander into a pot to catch the whey.
Catch the whey.
When the cheese is mostly curd, tie the cloth up and hang it over the sink.
Leave it to hang there for a day or two depending on the weather.
You will have a bag of cheese.
You will have a pot filled with whey.
Salt and pepper can be added to the cheese after this, and you need home-baked bread to go with it. This will be lunch. For breakfast, the day-old bread can be torn, by hand, into small chunks. Never use a knife to cut it like this. A pot of coffee can be cooked up on the stove. The bread should be buttered and dropped into the pot, which you will put on your lap, resting on a tea towel. The bread is eaten with a spoon straight out of the pot, dripping with butter and coffee. The warmth of the pot helps with the chill of winter, which is never quite alleviated by the tiny bar-heater that a grandmother uses to heat the room.
This is a recipe my grandmother gave me. It is not written down, just as fairytales were never written down, not originally. Only later did historians commit the stories to paper. Only later have I come along and set the recipe in bold typed letters.
My grandmother taught me how to make gnocchi, pounding out the potatoes with the flour, pressing the dumplings with a thumb with just the right pressure. We made the gnocchi together, watching midday movies dubbed from Italian into English. (When gnocchi is cooked you must set it dancing on the top of the water.) It was just me and her, and her torn and stained red vinyl-topped card table. I suppose it was during the years when my sister was old enough to go to school and I was not. I remember asking her to talk in Italian, French, Slovene, Arabic. She would dance from language to language and I would try to repeat her words, and she would laugh. I remember her laughter. I still hear it now.
She didn’t teach my mother to cook. She didn’t teach my aunt or my sister. I am not sure why I was treated to her secrets of preserving and bread- and cheesemaking.
She never taught me what to do with the whey.
ANASTAZIJA GREW UP in a rush, wild and impatient as happens when children live at the base of a mountain.
In the glorious days before her menses began and her chest grew puffy and sore with the rush and pummel of oestrogen, she was first and foremost a child of the mountain like any of the village boys. She ran barefoot in snow in winter, when the days were so short that she slept almost till noon and crawled back into the warmth of her blankets straight after dinner. She was a tiny thing, brave as a horse with feet as thunderous as hooves, galloping along the riverbank, leaping into the near-frozen river, swallowing the river water that teemed with micro-organisms (some of which would find safe harbour in her lower intestine), climbing so high on the mountain that when she looked down, her relatives – tilling the fields – seemed tiny as beetles. She cut her fingers on brambles and sucked away the blood along with specks of mud, the sap from the trees, the dust from the rocks.
The village of Mirna became a part of her. Day by day she ingested more of it. In the 1850s there was no forensic science to place her as a child of the mountain as we might now place a murderer at the scene of a crime. But today you might sample a puff of breath from her lungs and find the water of the Mirna River, the wheat from the fields. The very earth beneath her feet had become a part of the body and breath of this tiny slip of a girl.
I NEED YOU to look closely at me. You will notice the flesh. So much of it that it obscures almost everything about me. The puff of my chubby cheeks obscures the fact that my eyes are actually quite large and piercing. The swell of belly has subsumed the breasts, of which I have always been most proud. The voluminous hips have tipped me away from my once stable centre of gravity.
But look closer, not just at the flesh. Look down to the level of atoms, the fundamental building blocks of life, or so it seems. The atoms have space inside them. More space than matter: much more space. If you collapsed all the matter in a human body down to it’s smallest, densest size and pressed it square you would have a cube that measured only one five-hundredth of a centimetre on each side. All the stuff left in that tiny cube was formed billions of years ago, and much of it dates back to the Big Bang. But stretched-out atoms don’t behave the way you might suspect. Electrons leap from track to track rather than orbiting a nucleus in nice unbroken lines. Their position is only determined by a probability wave. The position of everything inside me is indistinct, wavering, ever changing, only fixed once it’s measured.
So measure me. Fix me in place. I am bigger than my mother, than my grandmother, than her grandmother. We are matryoshka getting bigger with each subsequent generation. We are expanding just like the universe is expanding. If you think about it carefully, all the atoms in our bodies are expanding incrementally with the universe as it creeps towards its maximum entropy. We are more dispersed when we die than when we are born. Our children are minutely bigger than we once were. But I am more than a smidge bigger than my mother and her mother. I am all their hopes and disappointments exploded into something they find horrific in its exaggeration of an ideal. This explosion of flesh hints at the end times, at universal entropy expanding towards it’s ultimate, timeless state. My flesh is a challenge and a premonition. The end is coming. At the end, we will be infinitely unimportant in a universe that has divested itself of seconds and minutes and deadlines of any kind, and come, at last, to peace.
The biological stuff that is inside me at its tiniest level is my DNA, but that cluster of DNA is in the minority. The stuff that is me and of my ancestors is spliced together with pieces of viral invaders that have been co-opted into my genetic cohort, and even with these foreign building blocks, the bricks that are mine are outnumbered by the stuff that is bacterial. My microbiome stretches out within me like a vast, twisting, ever-changing landscape, teeming with life.
I am Tasmania in topography. Diverse ecosystems, changing at each turn. My vaginal microbiome like the fecund rainforest, my anal microbiome like a cave glittering with speleothems and Lampyris noctiluca. My desert skin as varied as every desert on the globe: the Antarctic, the Kalahari, the Gibson. All of this microbial life is something other than me and yet intimately connected to and influencing all that I am. I am more other than I am myself. I am driven by forces that are so small that they are out of sight and out of mind.
Even the tiny amount of myself that I can claim is not all active at the same time. Parts of my genetic material lie dormant and can be switched on or off by the world around me. I am buffeted at every turn by the epigenetic winds of fate.
Some survivors of the Holocaust bore children who were fat as I am fat. These children and their children’s children were condemned to express the inverse proportions of the starved bodies of their grandparents. Perhaps the secret traumas written in my grandmother’s genes breathed their epigenetic magic into my body: my own obesity might be a distress signal lighting the way back through generations to whatever secret terrors that child had survived.
Epigenetic changes have been tracked forward through generations of lab rats. Once a dormant genetic trait has been switched on through environmental circumstances – in humans, perhaps the trauma of war, or the trauma of famine – the changed genetic expression will continue to raise its head in these rats through at least fourteen subsequent generations.
My grandmother’s silences speak to me of some secret hidden trauma. Her hoarding tendencies, which have become my hoarding tendencies, are common among survivors who have fled conflicts carrying nothing but the clothes they have with them.
I know my grandmother left Slovenia to travel, alone, to Egypt as a child.
I know she then fled Alexandria in the 1956 exodus of the foreign mutamassirin (Egyptianised) community that she had been a member of since her teens. She arrived in England with nothing but two tiny children and a suitcase that turned out to contain nothing but a single human skull. Their shoes, which were made to walk through the hot and sandy streets of Alexandria, melted off their feet in the deluge that greeted them on the English docks.
Barefoot and with an almost-empty bag, my grandmother and her two daughters trudged into a new and unfamiliar life, surviving – yet again – against the odds. My grandmother was born to survive as her mother and her mother’s mother before her had survived. I know this, even as I stare into the gaping holes that define my family tree. Its branches are the branches of a tree in winter, naked, just the bare twigs pointing to mysterious erasures. My all-too-corporeal body marks its place in the here and now, but all the tangling branches leading away from me are bare and fruitless and they stretch into a mysteriously empty past.
The people who were expelled from Egypt in 1956 were made up of many nations. Alexandria was a truly multicultural city. There was a French quarter, an Italian quarter, an English quarter – and each one had its own unique customs, rules of etiquette and place in the hierarchy. I know that the Italians were not as high in the pecking order as the French. The British were the top class and everyone was envious of those who had a British passport.
My grandmother married my grandfather, wearing a wedding dress that came from Paris. This was an important fact that she mentioned to me several times. My wedding dress was from Paris. Nationalities were important in Egypt at the time. My grandfather had dark skin and a British passport, a queenly English accent, and a position in the British embassy. His children – my mother, my aunt – went to the British school where they learned only one language despite the fact that their mother knew seven and struggled a little with the Queen’s English, mixing her sentences up so that she sounded a little like an Eastern European version of Yoda. The fact that my grandfather, whose family had lived in Egypt for three generations, had olive skin, thick dark hair and looked distinctly ‘foreign’ was never talked about – not when my mother and aunt were children. Not decades later when I was growing up in yet another country. His British passport was the prize.
In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, the decolonisation of Egypt began. President Nasser began to strip colonials of their Egyptian citizenship, banning them from certain professions. He also arrested over a thousand Jews.
My grandmother was sent away ahead of my grandfather. My grandmother, who always carried her nationality around like a locked box, was shipped out overnight. She boarded a ship bound for England, a homeland that neither she nor her husband had ever seen.
Why was she sent away early? Apparently my grandmother woke up one morning to find a mark on their door. The mark meant that they would be arrested. She took the children and boarded a ship and fled. My grandfather stayed on to sort out their affairs. Why did he stay when she was forced to flee?
Over a thousand Jews were arrested in 1956.
I put one thing beside the other and it leads to a question that I have been circling my whole adult life. Are we Jewish? Was she Jewish? Why did she have to flee Slovenia? Was it because she was a Jew?
THE GENETIC TEST kit was expensive. It arrived in a big black box with a magnetic fastener. There was a bewildering pamphlet and a long series of numbers and letters: my unique passcode. Two little glass vials sat in a plastic ziplock bag. Inside the vials were two tiny combs, like combs made for a doll. The instructions suggested I should rub each of these combs across the skin inside my cheeks for a minute each and then put them back in the vials. The vials contained the liquid that would protect the cells that would isolate my DNA.
‘What do you think you’ll find out?’ My friend Ellen turned the little vials over between her fingers, looking at the combs inside. Ellen is Aboriginal Australian and Dutch, which means she could participate in a genetic testing project for free. Another one of our Aboriginal friends had already taken the test and it had just underlined her Aboriginality, placing her people somewhere on the New South Wales–Queensland border, or perhaps moving up towards the Northern Territory. She’d been sent a certificate with some nice Aboriginal paintings on it and a confirmation that she was from the haplogroup S. Not much else to report. The rest of the information was technical and confusing, and ultimately her results had felt to her a little underwhelming.
‘I think I’ll find out whether my grandmother was Jewish,’ I said to Ellen.
I hadn’t taken the test yet: the vials remained unopened. Everything was still possible and yet, even looking at the kit, I already felt almost defeated.
It was true, I might be able to determine Jewish origins. I had been told that a Jewish heritage was easy to determine. There is an unbroken line of Jewish culture passed down from mother to daughter to daughter, which makes Jewishness clearly delineated along the female genetic line. ‘Ashkenazi’ is the word that would identify my family as Jewish. If there was a significant marker of Ashkenazi heritage on my genetic test, then I would know that my grandmother was a Jew.
My grandmother’s middle name was Mariam. It is a name that has a Jewish origin but she was quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that she was named after a particularly good maid who had worked for her family and was what she called a ‘Jewessa’. My grandmother was not Jewish at all, or that is what she told us vehemently. Her family was Catholic. But we were not brought up in the Catholic Church and my grandmother had a certain ambivalence towards Catholic holidays. ‘We can have Christmas anytime,’ she used to tell me if I couldn’t make it home for the holiday. ‘Christmas is just the day they stole from the pagans, you know this?’
If my genetic test indicated that I was Ashkenazi – Jewish – perhaps this result would bring me closer to understanding the silences in my family history. If my grandmother was of Jewish descent, perhaps I would be able to sort through the scant pile of lies and mythologies that I have inherited from her. Perhaps I would be able to explain why she would not tell strangers where she was born, why she was frightened of anyone in authority, why she encoded her childhood stories in weird myths and fairytales instead. If she was Jewish then it is very possible that she was running from something terrible. If she was Jewish then I might be able to develop a feeling of kinship with other Jewish people. I might be able to extend the meagre boundary of my family to include a whole group of people whose ancestors had experienced similar trauma to my own. I might be able to stand my body up beside theirs and to point at the places where our genetics overlap, skin to skin, blood to blood.
Ellen settled on to the couch and hefted the cat up onto her lap. I watched him shift onto her crossed ankles, a caramel curl of purring. I considered Ellen to be family. She would always have a place to sleep on my couch; she would always have an Ellen-shaped place in my heart.
I was always doing this, gathering someone into my life, getting to know their parents, their relatives, adopting their families as my own. Ellen wasn’t the first, and she certainly wouldn’t be the last of my unrelated siblings. It is a habit, this gathering of people. I am attracted to close families, ones with history, clear ancestry and strong family ties.
Ten years ago I knitted James Cosier into myself; he was a fifteen-year-old boy who I worked with. And his family were so welcoming. They invited me to their Christmas gatherings. They gifted me a string of pearls. I became close with his brothers and travelled overseas to stay with them; I became a family member by default. And it was only after several years that I realised they were Slovene too, and from a village not far from my grandmother’s. I wondered if we were actually related; I dreamed that we might be. It would give me a sense of belonging that always seemed to be missing with my own immediate family.
When the Cosiers, one by one, moved interstate or overseas, I was bereft. I continued to email them but I felt like I had become unmoored. I floated through my days, bumping into people, feeling lost and unwelcome. It was a feeling I remembered from my childhood, trapped within the closely guarded walls of my own family.
When I was young I loved the Moomintroll stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. The Groke was my favourite character. She shuffled about just outside the light of the home fires, looking in through windows, longing to feel a part of the family inside. Everything she touched turned to ice, so she was forever excluded from the world of loving sisters and maternal Moominmammas.
I felt like I was the Groke. My own grandmother, the fiercely beating heart of my family, was not fond of hugging. She saw any sign of love as a sign of weakness. None of my achievements, no matter how large, were seen as success. There was always someone else I might beat; something I could do better. Good was never good enough.
Groke-like, I would look in on all the other loving families at school. I would hear children praised. I would see them hugged. I would sense the love in these houses and wonder why my own family wasn’t like these other people. I longed to have sleepovers at other kids’ houses, but my grandmother never allowed it. She was the matriarch in charge of the whole family and she didn’t trust strangers and wouldn’t let us get too close to anyone outside our own familial walls.
Ellen is like a sister to me, and before her there were other sisters and other brothers, all of them close to their own large and loving families. Ellen has a solid sense of self. She has an unshakable connection to country. She has the quiet confidence of someone who knows who they are and where they have come from. And I can see what I am doing here. I know I am compensating for the emptiness I feel when I am with my own maternal family. These intimate connections with strangers make up for the silences in my life. Their certainties warm me. I stare into their lives like the Groke, getting almost but not quite close enough to touch them, stopping short, as if I’m frightened of turning them to ice.
In the shadow of that DNA kit, its possible answers, I served the spaghetti vongole and brought it to the table. Ellen extracted herself from under the cat and we clinked glasses, my partner, my heart-sister, myself. The cat wove around our feet, and for a moment I almost felt complete, like I had found an acceptable family to call my own.
The genetic test languished on the coffee table as we ate. Those two tiny vials, those combs for dolls, had weight. A little fleck of tissue from inside my cheek might prove to be as heavy and unshakable as a padlock. For now I was free to be whoever I wanted, floating without history or heritage, drifting up against other people’s families like a jellyfish moving with the tide. The results of the test would chain me to a family that I would have to accept as my own. And I wanted this. I was ready for it.
At least I thought I was, that evening, eating vongole with the people I loved. I thought I was ready for whatever I might find.
WHEN SHE WAS a child, my grandmother was put on a train, alone, and sent away from home. Alone with a suitcase. Alone and determined not to be afraid. This is a true story that she told us. Or it is a lie, fabricated to embellish a wan, eventless life.
I look for threads to pull at. I dream of an unravelling. I have heard about the Kindertransport, a valiant attempt to rescue Jewish children and to take them out of Germany and some other countries. But my grandmother wasn’t in any of those places. That is what she tells us. My grandmother was born in ‘no man’s land’, she says, a place between countries. A country without a name. A place being fought over, its fate undecided. ‘Slovenia,’ she would say when pushed. ‘No man’s land, Slovenia,’ as if it were a city within a country within her imagination.
But Kindertransport aside, my grandmother was on a train, alone, with a suitcase, as a child. She was sent away from her mother and father. The train was stopped. Soldiers boarded the train. She had no papers and so they tried to take her off the train. They grabbed her arm. They dragged at her. My grandmother was all force of will. There was nothing to her but her absolute determination, heavy as a lead sinker, heavy enough to drown herself and take anyone with her. She held her place and then, with a gun in her face, she screamed. She screamed so loud and without cease that the soldiers left her. She was too much trouble: a tiny slip of a girl, a waste of energy. They left her and moved on. My grandmother made it all the way to Egypt.
This anecdote stands alone, adrift on a sea of empty forgetting. It is a fragment. Perhaps it is one of the only fragments she remembered. Perhaps it was only a scrap of a secret life that she felt safe to tell. But it troubles me, it bubbles up into my head as if it is my memory and not hers.
I once ran an arts workshop with a group of Vietnamese migrants and a young boy told the story of his boat trip from Vietnam. His boat ran into pirates. The pirates took his mother. They took him too. But he was just a baby and he screamed and screamed until eventually the pirates circled back and returned him to the boat with the rest of his family.
I remember, I thought. That happened to me too. But no. That happened to my grandmother, and that memory has now become my own. This boy’s story so similar to my story. There is a connection between those who flee, those who are taken and those who survive the journey.
I MUST PROP myself up; I must not let my body sink back into the pillows. I shuffle my bottom back, trying to make my body more upright. Even this small movement exhausts me. The cat has made a little nest in the quilt that is draped over my chest. My temperature has been elevated for a week and the cat is enjoying this rare period of warmth and stasis. A lap is his favourite thing and now he has a permanent lap. I am grateful for his company.
I have barely eaten, sipping at the coffee and soup that my neighbours bring me each morning and each evening when they come to feed the cat.
People die of pneumonia. And the first morning after my diagnosis I thought I might become one of these fatalities. I woke from a fevered dream, shivering, damp with sweat and unable to draw breath. I had propped myself up in bed but even with a mountain of pillows lifting me above the horizontal, the fluid still pooled in my chest. When I did breathe it sounded like I was underwater, breathing through a regulator like a diver.
My phone rang. I had it propped up on a pillow beside me but I barely had the strength to pick it up and hit the button that would connect me with the caller. It was my husband calling from a stint of work in Sydney. He had been reluctant to leave after the diagnosis of pneumonia but I was adamant. Now, waking alone and in distress, I was not so sure. I must have spoken to him then but I can’t remember what I might have said. All I know is that when my neighbour opened our front door with her spare key some time later, she had a pair of ambulance workers in tow.
I was given the drugs that I needed. I was very sick, they said, but they warned me that a hospital might be the worst place for someone with such a compromised immune system. They helped me move to the couch where I could prop my back up against the wall. If I got worse, I should call them straight away, but for now I should try not to slip below the vertical. Somehow, in this awkward, upright position I should try to get some sleep.
My grandmother woke me. She was standing beside me. I knew she was dead and I also knew she was here. The incongruity of these two things did not seem like a problem for me at the time. She held her gnarled hands above my forehead.
Feel the heat? Yes?
Yes. I felt the heat off her hands.
I am taking the poison into myself, she said, breathing in slowly, letting the heat from her hands become so hot that I felt like the skin on my face would peel right off. Then she breathed out sharply and flicked her fingers, scattering the poison of my sickness to the far edges of the room.
You can sleep now, she told me. The poison is getting not so much. And I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Waking, I could taste her soup in my mouth. Not the thin, packet soup that my visitors had brought me, but the rich vegetable soup she used to make, boiling, then cooling, then squeezing the cooked potato and carrot and celery with her bare hands. She used to tell me that there was magic in the hands of a cook. If the cook was the right person, the magic person, then food would take up some magic from her fingers and pass this to the family to keep them well. It was one of her stories, of course, one of her old wives’ tales, and yet thinking about her words on the sickbed of my couch, I wondered if there was something to it.
I had been reading science magazines before I got sick and I had read about the microbiome. Surely some of the bacteria from the hands of the cook would be transferred into the soup when she squeezed it. The same with the bread, which had to be kneaded by hand, the gnocchi, the pasta, the tortillas. The hands of the cook, the microbes on the hands, the microbes in my gut. Surely they were all related.
I was feeling a little better; I felt like I could read again. I reached for New Scientist and read about how the vagus nerve connected the stomach directly to the brain. There was some new research that suggested that microbes in our gut could affect our mood. The population of microbes in a gut was determined by particular types of food: food could therefore affect depression, anxiety, even schizophrenia. Sometimes the worst symptoms could be alleviated by a change of diet, which in turn changed the population of microbes, which would then speak directly to the brain and alter mood.
THE KRIVOPETE ARE the wild women of Slovenia. They are closer to the wind and the rain and the mountains than they are to human beings. Their backwards-facing feet are perfectly formed to help them climb up the snowy face of mountains to peer down at villagers living below. Every village has a story about wild women: someone has seen one; someone has spoken to one; someone learned to pickle vegetables from a helpful Krivopeta
These women have long curly hair. Sometimes their hair is bright green like moss. Sometimes their fingernails are as long and sharp as the claws of an animal. They live alone in caves at the base of a mountain. But they are not always so solitary. A Krivopeta might take a man to share her life with for a while; you might even call this a marriage of sorts. The Krivopeta tolerates the man, is sometimes affectionate towards him, but there is always a distance. Her feet are always facing backwards towards her life in the mountains when she was happily alone.
The Krivopeta is useful to other villagers. Her knowledge of preserving and farming and the weather can help the farmers prosper and survive even the harshest winter. The wild woman might teach the man her secrets; she might make him feel that he is sharing everything equally with her. But if he crosses her, if he shares her secrets with the villagers of his home, she will eat his children or bring a great storm and hail to destroy the crops.
In Resia, one such wild woman is said to have burned a whole village to the ground.
After three courses of antibiotics for pneumonia I began to feel like I might re-enter the world. I was wrung out. Taking the few steps to the kitchen made my legs shake. I squinted against the light when I turned it on. I felt like I was stepping on popcorn or maybe bubble wrap; something odd was happening to my bare feet as I walked into the kitchen. I looked down, tried to focus. It was only then I realised that the kitchen floor was teeming with tiny wriggling maggots. My eyes widened. I suddenly remembered the chicken soup I had made when I first began to feel ill. I had dropped the carcass straight into the kitchen bin. And it was summer. Things decompose quickly in a Brisbane summer.
How long ago had that been? Why had I not even noticed the smell? How many days or weeks had I been propped up on the couch, moving only to visit the bathroom or accept the various cups that had been placed in my hands by kindly neighbours?
Still shaking, and now weeping, I found dustpan, brush, antiseptic and dropped to my knees to sweep, to clean, to disinfect. After an interminable length of time the floor was clean, the bin was emptied and I had put on a fresh cup of coffee.
I sat outside in the sunlight for the first time in weeks and cupped the coffee mug in my hands. In recent years I’d been down with the flu every few months. I would catch every cold that was travelling through town, and I would be sick for a week when everyone else spent just a few days with a sniffle. There was obviously something wrong with my immune system but I didn’t know what to do about it. I felt strangely ashamed of my weakness.
I blamed my obesity, as all fat girls do. Despite the frequent blood tests and visits to my doctor that suggested I had low cholesterol, lower blood pressure and a perfectly healthy body in spite of my weight, I blamed everything on obesity: my tiredness, my depression, my various viruses and flues, my lack of literary awards. In my head, every bad thing that happened or would happen to me was due to my weight. I was always going onto or coming off a diet and each unsuccessful attempt at weight loss would add a few more kilos to my frame.
Sitting outside in the courtyard with the smell of Dettol on my fingers and dead maggots still sticking to the soles of my feet, I thought about those symptoms of pneumonia that were still such a vivid memory from my immediate past. I needed to do something radical. I needed to make a change to my diet and stick to it. Maybe I needed to do something about my microbiome.
I decided to start fermenting.
Bujta repa means ‘slaughtered turnips’ in the Slovene language. Anastazija liked the idea that making this dish required an act of murder – slaughtering the turnips with a carving knife – although her mother insisted that the ‘slaughter’ related to the slaughter of pigs because these turnips would be served at the time of the pig kill. The fermented root vegetables would be grated and added to a big pot of bones and meat with some millet and whole black pepper and roux. It was Anastazija’s job to pick the turnips. She still had a strong, young back and could do the hard work of all the bending without complaint. She dug her spade in the frosty ground.
First frosts make the turnips sweet, her mother always told her. Her fingers ached with cold but she pulled hard and the sweet, fat turnip came away from the ground. She dusted it off and put it in her basket and bent again for another.
Anastazija sat back on her heels and shook her cramping fingers. Her grandmother was leaning in the doorway. Anastazija shaded her eyes and squinted. The old woman was staring at her intently.
People were always overly careful around her grandmother; they rarely looked her in the eye. They nodded and hurried past her at the market. Anastazija had heard people whisper that she might be a witch. It didn’t matter. She loved the musty smell of her grandmother’s skirts, and the way the old lady rested her hands above Anastazija’s head when she was sick, ‘taking the poison into herself’, as she said; making the pain go away. Perhaps that was something a witch might do, but Anastazija was glad of her grandmother’s magic and grateful for it every time she got one of those blinding headaches that made the world spin around and drew triangles on the bare sky.
‘Bring those here,’ her grandmother said and Anastazija grinned. It was her mother’s job to make the pickles to go into bujta repa. She had often helped her mother wash the bulbous roots and lift the heavy vinegar jar for the pickling.
‘Isn’t Mother going to do it?’ She brought the heavy basket and set it gently at the matriarch’s feet.
Her grandmother grinned in return and Anastazija looked up into her mouth, noticing the dark gaps where her teeth had fallen away. The old woman leaned down and Anastazija could smell the sweet fetid breath that enveloped her whenever the old woman kissed her goodnight. It was a comforting smell, the smell of safety.
‘You are old enough now,’ her grandmother whispered. ‘The magic skips a generation. Your mother doesn’t have it but I see it in you. It lights up your skin when you sleep. You need to be trained just as my grandmother trained me when I was your age. I need to pass the secret on to you.’
‘So many secrets. But for today? We learn what to do with the whey.’
Anastazija; Perina; Dragitca; Wendy; Krissy.
Anastazija; Dragitca; Krissy.
The power would skip through generations like a stone jumping easily across the Mirna River. Anastazija would pass it over Perina to Dragitca, my grandmother, and my grandmother would pass it over my mother to me.
I AM A woman of science. I like the rigor of scientific testing. I like the way we no longer jump to the conclusions that lead us to believe in the old wives’ tales. When my friends go to an acupuncturist or a homeopath, I shake my head and joke about their witch doctors and the placebo effect.
But this is science: we know that the microbiome has a very important effect on the whole of our bodies. We are outnumbered, cell to cell, by our non-human micro-organisms. We are 43 per cent human and 57 per cent other. This ratio startles me. My body’s cells are outnumbered by non-human organisms. And these organisms must be fed. I am doing it for science as I slice through the purple leaves of a cabbage, revealing the web of dark and light within each slice that looks like a human brain cut wafer-thin. I think of the scientific reasons my microbes might feast on this rich ferment once the kraut has had time to steep and the bacteria and wild yeast on its leaves have had a chance to multiply and grow.
I try to think of the science as I massage the salt into the shredded leaves, releasing the juice of the cabbage and staining my fingers the dark red of blood. Instead there is a phrase repeating over and over in my head: the magic is in the hands of the cook. The magic is in the hands.
WE HAVE THE results of your genetic test. Please log in to our website for more details.
I felt my heart leap, and yet I suspected I would find out very little. After all, what did it matter what percentage of Neanderthal genes made up a part of my own? Did I really care what part of Africa my ancient ancestors had trudged from? I knew I would be looking for just one phrase, Ashkenazi Jew, and I felt sure it would be there on the screen – Dragitca’s secret, the one part of the code of my gene pool that would click into place and make sense of all the rest.
My finger hovered over the keyboard. Why did the thought of these answers make my heart race? And what if I turned the key in this lock and the room that the door opened onto was beige coloured, neat, boring? What if there was nothing particularly interesting to discover inside my own genetic line? I had such tantalising scraps of family history: each short, bright scene felt like the beginning of something important, exotic, unique. I was so attached to the story I’d imagined of my grandmother as a Jewish princess, farmed out to families across Europe, smuggling the family jewels of her genetic inheritance, changing her identity from country to country, marrying a dark-skinned British man in Egypt who might himself be an Egyptian prince, hiding his identity, pretending to be from the Isle of Man despite his olive complexion and thick dark hair. What if the answer was much more bland and simple than that? What if she was born in Slovenia, was sent to Egypt because there was little in the way of work or prospects where she was from, and married a regular British man who was just part of the ex-pat community in Egypt? What if I am just a long cold drink of water with only a twist of exotic fruit in my distant past?
I stared at the computer screen. I wanted to wait and open the results when there were others around me. Ellen would be coming over for homemade ricotta ravioli tonight and my husband would be beside me too and we could look at the results and discuss them together.
I wanted to wait, but I couldn’t.
I opened the website.
I typed in my own unique passcode.
When a Krivopeta reveals her secrets they must be guarded diligently. She is careful with this information. Only a lucky few will be taught what she knows. If the man she takes as her companion is careless with her secrets, she will eat his children and the crops in his village will fail. If she is very angry the whole township will flood and the people and animals will drown.
When I published my memoir Affection (Text) in 2009, I was careful what I said about my grandmother. I had told people that she loved fairytales. I told them that she made life-sized papier-mâché models of fairytale characters, that she opened a tourist attraction called Dragonhall in the middle of nowhere that no one ever visited. These safe and simple stories I put onto the page. I knew they revealed very little about her life. She was an intensely private person. She was distrustful of others. She was afraid of ‘the authorities’, although I could never be sure exactly who she meant by that.
I didn’t tell people that she was from Slovenia. I didn’t tell them that I thought she might be Jewish. I didn’t talk about how I used to bite her when I was a baby and how she taught me not to do it by biting me back until she drew blood. I didn’t tell them that I believed she really was a witch, despite the fact that I am a proud atheist who holds to the rigorous methodology of science.
When she died I felt her watching me. And I felt the passing of time retreat to make space for her death, as if the whole world was in mourning. Everything suddenly became a sign or a symbol in the wake of her death. I went to collect her ashes and the rain began, a cyclone, chasing at her heels. I knew the world would end then because she had told me that she was magic and would live forever. Her death ate away at my foundations as surely as a king tide steals great swathes of sand from the shore.
The Krivopete can control the weather. The Krivopete can make a flood.
I typed my passcode into the website and pressed ‘enter’.
My grandmother was dead. If she were alive I wouldn’t dare to test my genetic history. She would have forbidden it as she forbade those sleepovers. And she would curse me if I disobeyed her will. But I knew that word would be there among the flotsam and jetsam of all the things that go into making me as a person.
Ashkenazi, a history of persecution. The piece of puzzle that would snap into one of the gaping blanks of my ancestry.
But the only word that clicked into life when I entered my code was a different one. Inconclusive.
I could hear my grandmother laughing. She was usually so stern: she frowned easily. She found fault, refused to praise, slapped people on the bottom instead of hugging. I remember all the times she held her finger up to stop me crying when my lower lip began to quiver. My grandmother was a force of nature, the hand of judgement: that single finger in the air could stop a tidal wave of tears. And yet I do remember her laugh. Full-force, playful, cheeky as a sprite. I remember the low rumble of her laughter. I could often make her laugh. I would make jokes, entertain the whole family with my antics just to get a laugh out of her. Her laughter was precious to me and I worked for it.
I could hear that laughter now, low and full. My grandmother’s mirth. I was certain she was watching me, laughing at me, not with me. Funny peculiar not funny ha ha as she so often said.
Something had gone wrong with my sample. That tiny comb for a doll that I had dutifully rubbed against the inside of my cheek had failed to collect any usable tissue. I am certain there was a perfectly scientific reason for this. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough saliva. Or maybe I had rubbed too hard.
I would try again, of course. I would get to the bottom of the problem. I am no longer a captive of my grandmother’s steely will. She is dead and I am free. I am free to find out who I am. I am free to find out who she was.
Anastazija; Dragitca; me.
I AM MAKING a new batch of sauerkraut, massaging the salt into the cabbage with my hands. There is something meditative about this, a rhythm to it. I know there is a science of bacteria and micro-organisms. I know I am doing this because of the gut bacteria, the vagus nerve. Science, science, science. I try to make it my mantra. But I hear the words repeating over and over, different words.
The magic is in the hands of the cook. The magic is in the hands.