Down Under

Summer reading special: 2nd place fiction contest winner

My mother eats herring for breakfast. She uses her fingers to retrieve the bare bones out of her mouth and to put them back on her paper plate. She sucks in the moist flesh and stares blankly at me, as I clean my brushes.

“Mama, would you like anything else to eat?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll manage.”

Feeding her is never simple. She only eats kosher food and refuses to use any of my kitchenware because it is “impure.” Since her arrival in Australia, a week ago, we shop for her food around Elsternwick and East St. Kilda. We enter the dark shabby shops stuffed untidily with imported goods bearing Hebrew labels. The floors are sticky and the shop assistants wear bouffant wigs like my mother. She feels at home there, perhaps more than in our sunny flat, full of my paintings. We come back loaded with canned gefilte fish, egg salad and frozen cholent.

My mother watches me experiment, mixing cornflower blue with lemon chiffon, but as always, she doesn’t ask me anything about my painting. She is bent over the food, her elbows solidly on the table. Her lips are oily with the fish.

“Are you okay?” I am as disgusted as I used to be in my childhood.

“Shhh…” says my mother, “The kabbalah teaches that when we’re eating, we feel God’s presence.”

She finishes her meal, absentmindedly picks her teeth and whispers an aftermeal brakha.

“So what are you going to do today?” Daniel breaks the silence. It is Sunday, but he has to work. Here is the day I have been dreading since her visit began; the two of us alone. For the first time since I left Israel five years ago.

“Look! Look! Chagall!” inside the National Gallery my mother urges me past stony, industrial-looking floors and walls. What a setting for the luxury of past art — is it mere misunderstanding or deliberate contempt of the pioneers used to asceticism? I always feel incurably foreign here, craving long marble stairways and chandeliers, soft silk and polished boots from my Russian childhood. My memories draw an invisible barrier between me and my new home.

We walk past the modern art section. The minimalist exhibits, bleak like anorexic partygirls, match the building’s spirit and make me wonder whether my own paintings depicting lewd, masked beauties with gold and silver splashes of color, have any future in this country. The critics write I am too European; as though it is a new measurement of failure; as though decadence is outdated in Australia, and equivalent to decay.

I feel more comfortable in the Modernists section.

Dochenka, Chagall was Jewish!” my mother pants behind me. We stand before a large canvas depicting a village of black fences and cherry-red roofs. Its houses, trees and hedges — painted in rough, thick brushstrokes — are pushing, climbing on top of each other, invading. I step back from this density, and from my mother. From the distance, as I breathe more deeply, I see two lovers in the painting, dressed in dark clothes like mourners. They float in a spacious, yellowgreen sky, high above the village. The young man with curly hair gently cups the breast of his beloved. In their sad, dark eyes there is a reflection of their village. Perhaps they are eloping, but will they ever break free from this memory? I feel like crying. I want to be alone.

My mother grabs my arm: “Chagall was born in Russia just like us. Nyet, actually it was Byelorussia. What a rotten place, I tell you, those Byelorussians, they hated Jews so much. There were always pogroms, always pogroms. After the revolution when Chagall ran away to Paris, all he ever painted was his village. But how could he, after everything they’d done to us?”

She lets go of my arm only to put up a wavering finger: “Look at these people, flying. He always painted dreams. What a big dreamer he was… to paint Russia like some fairytale. Huh! What a joke. He should have got on with his life, just like I did.”

Her voice has always been young and slender. I can picture her back in Israel, lecturing to her students: “…so I said to those Russians: ‘Either you let us out of this country, or I’ll burn myself right in Red Square.’ They let us go. What could they do?”

I shut my eyes, pretending she is her voice.

My mother is truly excited. I’ve never observed her before in such public situations. In Israel we’d meet over nervous Sabbath dinners: Dochenka, your dress is too short. Wash your hands. Be quiet now, papa is praying… Even now in my home where she is my guest, it is the same on Friday nights: Daniel, wear this yarmulke. Hurry, let’s light the candles. She will not calm down until the conditions are just right, the Kiddush wine gulped and the bread blessed, but even then she seems busy. I snap at her more often than I would like. “You and your God…What would you do without him?” But she just ignores me. She sneaked a photo of the late Rabbi Lubavitch into my car “for safe driving.” On long drives I stare crankily at the holy man’s austere, bearded face, but feel oddly secure.

We have never just spent time together, so it has never occurred to me that we both might admire paintings. I try to draw out the moment and introduce her to one of my little passions.

“See this painting? It’s Dorothea Tanning, one of the only women surrealists in Paris in the 1920s. These surrealists, they wrote a manifesto saying a woman’s job was to inspire. Women weren’t supposed to paint. She’s been excluded from most art books, but here, look she’s next to Magritte; he’s probably turning in his grave.’ I smile at my mother.

“Tanning…” she repeats slowly. “Didn’t she have a Jewish husband?”

I also have a Jewish husband, but, as my mother knows, we didn’t have a traditional Jewish wedding. I didn’t circle Daniel seven times and he didn’t break a glass under the huppa, instead he took me to Kakadu for a honeymoon. Perhaps this is what my mother is here to do now, to remind us of our Jewish duties. Purposes make her happy. Chagall makes her happy, not Dorothea Tanning.

We decide to go see the Early Renaissance. Before the Madonna and Child my mother says, “You should have babies. I told Daniel, all this painting-shmainting… My silly girl.” She pats me with her oily-fishy fingers. I shake her off.

“Mama, stop it! Let’s have fun. C’mon, I’ll show you Melbourne.”

It is her first trip outside Israel, but all she wants to do is iron our clothes and vacuum the carpets. It is not housework she performs, but an elaborate dance, tiptoeing skillfully on her sore toes, as though if she stopped, she might cease to exist.

She says, “I came to see you, not Melbourne, you silly girl. One day you’ll have your own daughter … All right, all right. Anyway, when you have your own, you’ll understand.”

Melbourne grants us a beautiful day. The sun peeps green through the abundant foliage and the scant wind cools our sweating bodies. I navigate between the cars: “Mama, look at the Yarra.”

Small boats glide across its glossy surface like swans.

“Very nice,” my mother nods. Her gaze is fixed on my profile. Intermittently she watches the road reading the signs out loud: Left to City Rd; Slow down, children crossing; Seventeen parking spots available. Occasionally she advises, “The truck behind is going too fast. Careful!”

I have no idea how others manage to go for a coffee or movies with their parents. My mother was always too busy for leisurely things, preferring productive activities, like studying kabbalah, marking her students’ homework, arguing with my father or cooking large Sabbath dinners. I keep driving, but rather than enjoying the view she grooms her new pet project, Daniel’s family tree: “His paternal grandfather was from Poland? And what did he do for a living?” Since her arrival, I’ve started breaking things. The frame of my newly mounted painting. Daniel’s glasses. I trod on my palette, flooding the carpet with sparkling gold. I can’t work anymore. I just want her to go. Since her arrival I’ve counted not the days, but the hours. This is the secret I keep from Daniel. My secrets are mounting, not my paintings. Last night I pushed Daniel away. “Have I done something wrong?” he asked. My tears flooded his chest. “She’s in the other room. She’s alone…” “So what? What’s the big drama? She seems pretty happy to me. Anyway, soon she’ll be back with your father, babe.’ I hid my face in his chest. How could I explain? How could I explain my drifting father, daydreaming with the Russian radio as his lullaby? How could I explain my mother’s constant erratic movement, as though she were escaping some memory? Or her bare legs, which she’d shown only to me? Their dark-purple veins trap her like fishing net.

The night was metallic blue. Daniel’s breathing had grown steady. I stood on the balcony, peering into the giant orange windows of the city’s skyscrapers, bright like stars. I wished my paintings were bold like them, dazzling onlookers, filling them with emotion. How do you paint feelings if you’re not Chagall?

I could paint the thick veins on my mother’s legs and the reviewers could again praise the virtuosity of my brushstrokes, the intricacy of patterns. But it would be just another failure.

I couldn’t sell you so cheaply, Mama. I want them to see my pain. That choking pain on seeing your aging legs. But how?

Perhaps I’ll paint you as you used to be, when we rented a wooden hut in a Siberian village and in the frosty mornings my father used to drown mice in the outside toilet. You wore that red dress there, the one with puffy princess-sleeves you’d got on the black market. You’d saved for five months and had then stood before my father, your hourglass body tight-wrapped. A new haircut? He’d asked. Then went back to his books.

I want to show my mother my iridescent, sparkling Melbourne — but instead we drive in circles.

“What else would you like to see?” I ask, casually turning the wrong direction into a one-way street. I know the answer.

Something like: All I want to see is you and Daniel. That’s my greatest pleasure. Besides, of course, having grandchildren

“I have to see a kangaroo.”

I almost collide with a car heading towards us. Rabbi Lubavitch, with his white Santa-Claus beard, promptly rescues us while giving my cleavage a nasty look.

“Your father told me not to come back until I’d seen a kangaroo!”

We leave the city behind. The houses recede, the horizon yawns its grand, pink mouth, and the energy of the city lets us go. Even Rabbi Lubavitch lets go of my cleavage. I open the window, breathing in the smell of warm grass. I long to transplant this smell and the endless Australian meadows onto my canvas. This will be my version of pioneering, a way to possess this tough land.

But perhaps, like my mother says, I’m just vain and self absorbed.

My mother ignores the changing landscape, the low hills and small makeshift graveyards. Instead, she looks at me; I can smell her breath. “At your age I already had two children. I wasn’t so silly. I knew what was really important.”

“I’m not you. You wanted to make babies, I’m making paintings.”

“Do you think that I wanted to have children so early?” My mother diverts her hazel, perpetually intense gaze from me. “Those were different times then. In Russia you had to bribe the Abortion Commission. We were students and didn’t have the money. When we got married, they kicked us out of the university hostel.”

I stop the car. My hands are shaking: “You never told me these things.”

She stares blankly ahead, her wig is askew.

“Why did they kick you out?”

“Because we were Ph.D. candidates, because we were too good,” she says slowly. “We had to focus on our studies, not babies. They gave us the privilege of sacrificing our youth for the mother country. It was either career or marriage; no grey areas. You’d never have understood.”

I look at my mother as though she is a stranger. For the first time I notice how smooth her skin is, how unusually smooth is her voice. She sits very still.

“The day they kicked us out, your papa sat on a bench at the bus station, not moving… it was winter, minus forty. I wandered around in a neighboring village, knocking on doors, begging people to let us in, to rent us a room. I didn’t even have time to think about an abortion.”

She sobs quietly; her fleshy cheeks shine crimson. She wipes her eyes with a determined gesture and adjusts her wig. I want to hold her, but I can’t; that’s not how things are between us. When I was younger, I craved to make her happy, but she always said happiness was God’s business. And perhaps this memory is just another excuse.

“Russia was no good to its people,” says my mother. “It ate them like that Australian spider that eats its children. What’s its name?”

“I don’t know.”

“You know, I’m really happy for you, dochenka. It’s different today. Your papa and I didn’t have our own place in our first years together. I’m so happy…” she sobs.

I’m weighed down with her sorrow, the sorrow that has always — since I was very young — driven me away to the strangest of places: kinky nightclubs, artistic communes, and now, Australia. She has infected me with incurable restlessness. But today, rather than running away I have an odd urgency to get to our destination.

Mamochka, please don’t cry. Another ten minutes and we’ll see the kangaroos…”

I repeat these words like mantra, then turn on some music.

“Would you mind turning it down?” asks my mother.

“Mama, remember in Russia when we’d listen to opera records together? You told me the story of Onegin.”

“I can’t believe you remember that.”

“I remember more: your red dress. I thought you were a princess.”

“Me? A princess? You mean your papa was a prince, always the prince — not from this world. He was so spoiled…”

“Mama! Listen…”

“Sorry, sorry. Go on.”

You were like a princess. Remember? You weren’t religious then. Your hair was long. You were beautiful, mama. We played piano together. Remember how I could never get it right? But you didn’t care. You never cared about those things.”

My mother stares straight ahead into the snaky road, “Who would think children could remember so well…” but this time she doesn’t cry.

At the Healesville Sanctuary my mother limps towards the fresh-green spaces, her heavy buttocks moving quickly under her skirt.

“Hey, mama, I’ve got for you seeds to feed the animals.”

“Oy, oy,” says my mother.

“Here, have some.”

“Oy, oy,” my mother repeats, “If only your father could see this… a real kangaroo… in Australia…” Her eyes are glued to the smooth-skinned kangaroos as they stroll around looking regal. She grabs both seed cones from me, gathers up her skirt and, panting heavily but determined, she pushes her way to the front of a group of school children. Her limp is severe, but the cones remain steady in her hands.

“Mama, will you give me one, please? I want to feed them too.”

There is no reply.

The sky is transparent, light blue. Two trembling naked figures float high above; their movements awkward and mismatched. The man is perhaps my young father with a head full of curly hair. He shyly covers his groin with one hand and puts the other on my mother’s abundant milky breast. I can just hear her prayer: Baruch ata adonai… Blessed are you, God. You who has saved us from our village… She rises suddenly upwards, then sinks back, below my father, and again till eventually she disappears and only her voice remains.

Baruch ata adonai

Back on earth — blackskirted, she is sprawled frivolously like an odalisque on the humid grass, fondling the muscular body of a grey kangaroo.

“What the hell are you doing?! It’s dangerous!”

But she is busy calling to a fat, pale wallaby, spilling words like seeds: “You lazy boy! Look how they’ve spoiled you here in Australia. You can’t even be bothered coming to get your food… Come on, lazy. Come on, beautiful!” Her voice rises and rises, its music stripping her of her body, of our shared memories, of her age.

“Look how sweet he is.” The wallaby has eventually accepted her invitation and is swaying towards her. She stretches out an open palm laden with food for lazy boy.

I sit down close to her: “Mama, you’re spoiling him. In case you didn’t know, he’s not Jewish.”

My mother smiles at me and lifts her head, glaring intensely at the summer sky, as if she too can see the floating lovers.

Lee Kofman is an Israeli-Australian author of three books in Hebrew. Her English publications (fiction, non-fiction and poetry) have appeared in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. She is the recipient of the Australian Council Grant, several writing residencies and an ASA mentorship.