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Excerpt from The Unreliable People

By Rosetta Allan

 

My name is Moon 

Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, USSR – 1977 

 

There aren't many words of the old country that survived the homogenisation of Stalin's collective farms. Only the old people harbour much knowledge of the language, but they refuse to speak it. The fragments Antonina hears are the ones her mother hurtles in moments of frustration. Angry, alien words spliced inside Russian sentences that somehow never make sense. Gwisin is one of these words, carried forward from the Hamgyŏng dialect. Like some little disaster, it causes grown-ups to purse their lips whenever Antonina asks what it means. Shhhh is all they say. We don't talk of such things.  

Antonina isn't afraid of the gwisin word though, and neither is her best friend Viktor. To her mother, Viktor Andropov is that potato-nosed Russian boy, but Antonina likes the shape of his nose. She likes that his hair is fair and wispy like fluffy clouds too, not Asian-black and flat like her own. And she loves the way he comes for her when he's in the mood to run away. At eight years of age, Viktor is just one year older than Antonina. They’ve been neighbours ever since the abduction, when her mother packed up and moved to the small village in the Medeu Valley where the Tian Shan Mountains rise abruptly behind their homes and the vast placid steppes spread like the hem of a skirt way down below. The mountains are jittery things. Sometimes they shudder, and sometimes they growl, shaking the dust from the wooden rafters of their homes. Sometimes they send gifts of rolling stones and spongy soil into the valley, and into the river further upstream, but never into the back of the houses of their village, or her mother's workshop. 

Tell Antonina why the stones don't hit us when the mountains shake, Viktor says.  

His mother has two wooden pegs in her mouth so they must wait. Antonina peers through the gappy-limbs of the hedge that separates the two properties towards the workshop in the backyard, hoping her mother is within range to hear the story. The door is open, which disappoints Antonina. Her mother is always too fixated on the pottery to listen to anything when the door is open.  

She throws a weed across the raised mound of the vegetable patch. It seems that all mothers must give children jobs before they're allowed to play. At least with the weeding, they are outside, though it's early April and the ground is still stiff from winter. The chill of it makes Antonina's fingers feel fat and clumsy, so she digs out a handful of soil as well and doesn’t bother to shake any of it off.  

Well, the rocks do come down sometimes, or they used to. Mrs Andropov says and looks up at the mountain. There was a shake that took the whole village with it, and the next one further down. Gummed up the river so much that it set a new path and ran all over the place. Rattled the city so hard that it crumbled to the ground—all except the Ascension Cathedral. Divine intervention that was. Has your mother taken you to see that old church, Nina? 

Antonina's mother doesn't believe in church, and Mrs Andropov knows it. No, Antonina says, concentrating harder on the weeding until her row is done. 

I beat you, she says to Viktor.  

No you didn’t. I had more weeds on my side, so we're equal. 

No. I beat you.  

No you didn't. Mama, tell Antonina— 

Have you done a good job, Nina? his mother interjects. 

Antonina thinks she has, and she nods with confidence.  

Go around the other side then and help Viktor. 

But Antonina doesn't want to help Viktor. I won, she says so only he can hear. 

Viktor scowls and plucks faster. Your weeds were baby weeds, he says. Mine are much bigger. 

 Antonina tries to turn the rusted knob of the outside tap. It resists her until she's almost ready to give up, then it jerks forward, gushing water on the top of her rubber boots. She stands back, leaning her hands into the spray of it, but there's no shock from the cold because her fingers are already numb. Viktor throws his weeds onto her side of the garden. She sees him doing it, but doesn't dare complain with his mother there. She dries her hands on her pants the way her mother tells her not to; then sits on the grass where Igor the goat tugs on his chain to reach her. Viktor is much stronger than she is. He loosens the tap with just one twist. They've argued about that before—the way he tightens it too hard. The way she doesn't. Taps are like that, she thinks—they show the consideration of the girl for the boy, but not the boy for the girl.  

Viktor drops down beside her and puffs on a wooden peg as though it's a cigarette. The air is bright with the disinfectant smell of Mrs Andropov's clean laundry. She is a silhouette on the flapping white sheet in front of them. Weak spring light plays around her, rippling her shadow, distorting her shape as it comes in and out of focus. Igor moves in and snatches the peg from Viktor's fingers, and they're both laughing when the clothesline wrenches around, and Mrs Andropov looms between the sheets. 

What are you laughing at? Get that peg off the goat Viktor, hurry up. Viktor reaches back, but Igor is too quick.  

Hurry up, before he dies of choking. 

Viktor's mother always talks of dying. No matter what they do, they will always die. If they don't eat enough dinner. If they don't put on their shoes. If they let the goat chew on a wooden peg. It's all the same to Mrs Andropov.  

 Anyway, now the dam stops all the mudslides, Mrs Andropov says once the goat is no longer at risk of dying. She stoops over the clothesbasket with her backside high and her head low like an old woman who can't bend her knees. It embarrasses Viktor—Antonina can feel it, and she nudges him just to be sure. Stops the river bursting its banks, says Mrs Andropov. Catches the falling rocks as well. But you never know. One day it could all collapse and take us with it, drowning like little rats, all the way down to the city. 

Viktor's dedushka steps out of the back door and lowers himself with a groan onto the highest of three concrete steps. Don't scare the children like that, he says. We're not going to be flooded again. He claps his hands and motions for the peg. 

Viktor takes it over, and the old man lights the end of it with his lighter, puffing like it's a prized cigar, until Mrs Andropov sweeps past and snatches it from his mouth. Viktor looks at Antonina, which, for some reason, makes her giggle. 

 Careful. Nearly pulled my teeth out, Dedushka Andropov says. 

He wears only the top of his false teeth—his chin sunken where the bottom ones should be. He pokes them halfway out of his mouth for the children to laugh at, and they do, not because it's funny, but because they're really ugly, all orange around the edges from the tar of his cigarettes.  

And you tell me not to frighten the children, Mrs Andropov says, but Dedushka Andropov ignores her. 

You don't have to worry, he says, his teeth stowed safely away inside his mouth. The snow people protect us. 

Antonina prickles with delight. She could listen to these kinds of stories a hundred times over and never get sick of them. She catches her bottom lip to bite back another giggle. Dedushka Andropov waits for Viktor's mother to go inside, then slides a jar of jam out of his blazer. He twists the lid and scoops a teaspoon of the red syrup straight into his mouth. 

 The snow people, he says, words sticky with jam. They protect us from the anger of the mountains.  

And that's why we leave the rice, isn't it, Dedushka? Viktor says. 

His dedushka doesn't answer. They've lost him already. Something is happening around his feet that has drawn his attention away. 

 What happens if you don't leave the rice? Viktor shakes the thigh of old man's pants. 

Antonina crouches to watch the jam drip from the teaspoon onto the heads of passing ants.  

What happens? Viktor shakes his dedushka again, but with less conviction. 

Mmhh? his dedushka lifts his head as if resurfacing from somewhere deep. The captain of the submarine, Viktor's mother, calls him, and Antonina likes to think that it was once true. Antonina likes the stories he tells about the snow people, and about the war when they conquered the Germans. He went to Germany once and kept a box of trinkets from that time—badges from blazers, medals, nametags, and knives. A miniature Nazi flag rolled up into the size of a sausage. Just small things. Remnants of another life, he calls them.  

 Dedushka? Viktor says. The snow people. What happens if you don't leave the rice?  

Snow people? Viktor's dedushka lifts himself from the step and stomps on as many ants as he can. That, and that, and that…you see?  

Told you, Viktor says, but Antonina isn't listening, she’s watching a poor ant curled on its back, legs kicking for its life. 

 

 Fairy tales, Antonina's mother calls the story later that night after dinner.  

But they're not fairy tales, Antonina smacks her palms against her forehead. Everyone's seen them. 

Really? Have you? 

Yes, Antonina says, though she's sure she must be the only one in the whole world who hasn't. 

What do they look like then? 

They're half-human, half-animal. They command the leopards and eat the fruit of wild apples, and berries, and apricots. The rice we leave behind the apple trees keeps them happy. But you have to be quiet to see them because they run away and hide whenever they hear a human voice. 

It sounds to me like you're reading from a book. Are you sure you've seen one, or are you just reciting a tale? 

And if you don't leave a bowl of rice, Antonina continues with a raised voice, they won't protect you from the angry mountains, and the rocks will come down and squash us like ants. She slaps her hands on the table and makes three good sharp sounds. Like that, and that, and that. 

Her mother straightens the knife and fork on her plate, then lines the salt and pepper and her bowl into a tidy row of soldiers. You don't need to be afraid of the mountain, she says. What you need to fear is the ghost who comes in the night to snatch children from their bed. 

Antonina can feel herself scowling. She looks down at her plate to hide her uncontrollable face. It doesn't feel right for mother to talk about the woman at the window like that. She wasn't a ghost. Antonina has the small red medal to prove it. It's still as real as it was the night she carried it home on the train, and it's hidden inside the doll Antonina made from her mother's clay. Her rattle she calls it, and mother never bothers with what's inside that makes the noise.  

The dinner dishes are piled one on top of another and pushed to the side of the table before mother walks out of the house without shutting the back door. Antonina knows what's coming—the thing her mother always does when new sightings of snow people come up. Sure enough, she returns with a mound of softened clay and thumps it down on the brown polka-dotted oilcloth that covers the table.  

Antonina kneels on her chair, and her mother leans over her from the back to press their hands into the clay as one. They bump together like rowboats moored to the same buoy. The force of mother’s body around her is comforting. It reminds her how she would sit on her knee at the potter’s wheel when Antonina was smaller, her mother’s hands working around the obstacle of her child, clay turning on the wheel, wet and messy, bowls forming right in front of her like magic. She can taste the chicken on her mother's breath brushing her face with every huff and press into the clay. Then it's done, and her mother takes Antonina by the wrists and peels her hands free, rolling forward from the heel of her palm to the tips of her fingers. Their arms criss-cross on Antonina's chest, careful not to touch her clothes with muddied hands. 

 Did you feel the suck against the palms of your hands? her mother asks.  

Antonina nods.  

That's how much the mountain cares. It wants to keep you close. It will always protect you.  

Her mother leans over Antonina's shoulder and runs her fingers around the imprint of their hands. Finger by finger, she traces their shape.  

See how the mountain loves you, she says. 

Antonina isn't sure about her mother's mud, but she thinks she is probably right about the snow people. Sightings always occur in the spring or autumn, when the bears come down to eat apples, either before, or after winter hibernation. Shortsighted bears that eat fruit and run away when you yell at them— just like the myth of the snow people.  

Still, it's annoying that mother doesn't play the way other parents do. That she insists on chasing away any story that has anything to do with her mountain. Her mountain—she calls it that too. She wasn't always like that. She used to read storybooks before bed, but they disappeared when they moved out of the city, all except a worn old version of the crow king. This one book her mother brings out whenever Antonina asks for a story, but now her mother only pretends to read the words. Instead of the real version, she recites one of her own, just as the strange woman had on the train.  

In her mother's story, the crow king eats children's fingers for dinner, and for that, he sends out his crows to steal children from bedroom windows. Crows that come in the form of old women with black hair, their faces covered in moon dust to hide the feathers, mouths painted in blood to resemble lips.  

By late April the snow has peeled back to the shoulders of the mountains where it stays all summer long. Patches of tulips call the children to come and play, and as expected, Viktor comes for Antonina to run away. 

Her mother is in her workshop. That steamy, sweaty place where she often wears only her underwear beneath a man-sized black apron while the homemade kiln cooks the pots she makes for the market. Antonina can hear her mother's song when Viktor comes through the back door. She sings when she's happy, and she's always happy smeared in the cinnamon-red sludge of her workshop. Her songs aren't the kind you can’t sing along to. They're wordless tunes with low, throaty chords that don't make sense. Songs of appreciation, she calls them. Her love songs to the mountain. And there's something enchanting about them that Antonina loves, but when Viktor distorts his face in mockery, Antonina does it too. 

Viktor keeps watch out the kitchen window while Antonina packs a picnic. Two boiled eggs, two chrysanthemum-shaped honey-cakes, two filled pastries that were probably meant for dinner, and one jar of water. Viktor takes the bag and fits one of the straps over his shoulder. 

Wait around the side, Antonina says, not wanting him to see her mother's ugly bloomers.  

When Antonina enters the workshop her mother isn’t in her bloomers, she is fully dressed.  

We're going for a walk, Antonina says.   

Good timing. I need to get some clay. You two can come and help me. 

But Mama, Antonina complains. You already have some. She points to the corner where the clay is stored under a sizeable damp canvas that smells like sweaty armpits and dog's breath all mixed together. There must be twenty blocks of it, all cut to the size of shoeboxes that have already been dragged home on the rickety wooden sledge that Antonina is not allowed to play with. 

Well, I need more, her mother says. A big order has come in from a restaurant in town. They want all their dishes to be pottery. Isn't that wonderful? 

Antonina sours her expression. Something has spooked her mother into needing company again, and Antonina doesn't want to know what it is. She's sure her mother just makes these things up to keep her home. There's the night sky, which she thinks will suck her clear away into orbit and burn her up like Laika, the dog in the space capsule. Writing names in red is forbidden. And there's the ghost who steals babies in the night—all of them warnings made up to keep Antonina close.  

Her mother lets out a groan. Come here then, she says and draws Antonina closer by the clip on her sleeve. What are you wearing? she says, and tugs at the belt of Antonina's favourite corduroy pants. Where are your gloves? 

It's too warm for gloves. Have to go, Viktor's waiting, she says in a rush, before her mother has time to think of another reason to hinder their fun. 

What about tomorrow then? We could go mushroom hunting. Her mother's voice trails thin as Antonina rounds the doorframe.  

 

It's not long before they're amongst the old apple trees. Antonina loves the wild orchard, the gnarled trunks and arthritic limbs. No fruit are in season. Not the tiny sweet pears, not the apricots or berries, not the nuts or the rhubarb. Only mushrooms are in when the season is turning, but the trees are pretty with the last blossoms clinging to the upper branches, the prongs of raw green that will stretch to become leaves. Antonina climbs the first limb she comes to and shakes it. Flurries of petals dance and scatter all around like the snow in a snow-globe inside her make-believe world where everything is perfect. She shakes and shakes again until the petals run out.  

Race you, Viktor says, and he's well ahead by the time she gets down from the tree. 

Antonina catches him on the second ledge. Way down below, her mother tows the old sledge on the dirt track that leads to the open wound where she finds her clay. She looks so small in the distance, her back set on a tilt, shoulders rounded. Behind her, the sledge ambles along, jerking over loose stones. She tugs the rope, and it races forwards to nip the back of her rubber boots.  

Gwisin, Antonina calls out, knowing her mother can’t hear. Rocks roll down, voices rise up. 

Gwisin, Viktor says out loud too, and they run and hide behind a boulder in case the mountain growls at them.  

It never does, though. No tigers come to eat them, no birds peck the eyes from their heads, and no ghosts steal their teeth. It feels good to give the word wings, though it never flies away. Although her mother would never speak of it, the children of the village did. They teased her about her story of the woman who came in the night. Said she was a liar, and their mother’s told them so. Petre Petrovich is the worst: he thinks it funny to slam his body into her ‘accidentally’ whenever Viktor isn’t around. Antonina waited for the woman to return so she could take her to school and show them all, but the woman never came back.  

Did you bring it? Viktor whispers, though there is no need to. 

Antonina digs deep inside the bag for the clay doll with the medal hidden inside its belly—the doll Antonina made in the image of the strange woman, painted with black-rimmed eyes and a tiny red mouth, a blue scarf and red leather gloves.  

Memories of the train ride come to her in pieces, but the last time she came is clear. The strange woman appeared as if from a fairy tale, out-of-the-blue, or out-of-the-white of a page from a bedtime storybook. Poised like a portrait, framed by the window and cast in the dim yellow light of Antonina's bedside lamp. She was beautiful, in a crumbling kind of way. Her eyeliner was thick and winged at the edges. Her cheeks were pinched pink from the cold, and her shiny black hair was swept back from her face and covered in a blue shawl lined with pink and yellow roses. Such prettiness. So unlike Antonina’s mother, whose only decorations are the designs she paints on the pottery bowls, though Antonina wouldn't really call them pretty. There's a brooch her mother owns—a traditional Korean Maedeup knot that her babushka made from white silk rope. It folds in and out of itself and forms a rectangle the size of a hand, with four jade beads, one in each corner. For luck, her babushka said. That’s as pretty as her mother ever gets, and most probably because of that, Antonina was drawn to the exoticness of the strange woman. That’s probably why she wasn't afraid as well, and why it felt safe enough to climb out the window to be taken away without a single complaint, though her legs were bare in the frozen air, and her mother was only one room away. 

Her mother is still only one room away, but now Antonina's windows are nailed shut, and so is the conversation between them about the woman who took her on the train. A ghost, her mother called her, after the militiaman had gone. After she slapped Antonina so hard that the side of her face was warm and tingled with disbelief.  

A gwisin, she said, and you ought to be afraid of them. 

 

Viktor's Dedushka has a set of bottom teeth that he wears whenever special visitors come to the house. He wore them the first time Antonina and her mother came to tea. When he tried to speak the words got tangled up like he was drunk. When he ate, they slipped around his mouth and clunked against the top layer, too big for his sunken jaw, and when he laughed, they looked like they might jump right out of his mouth. 

Viktor opens the drawstring bag that holds his marbles and the teeth rumble to the surface.  

They’re like a real skeleton, he says.  

Antonina clasps her mouth and stares. You should take them back, she says, but she knows he won’t because he never does what she asks. 

He’s better off without them, he says.  

He takes a piece of newspaper from his back pocket and unfolds a story cut from the Pravda the day before. Three men have their arms around the back of each other's shoulders, posing for the camera with more emotion than anyone usually shows in public. A thousand golden items are spread out beside the opened kurgan where a Scythian Prince has slept for hundreds of years inside a mound of dirt. Three men found him in Issyk—just one village over. Nobody knows how he got there, or when. And nobody can read the writing on the silver bowl because no one knows the old language anymore. The lost tribe, the newspaper calls them. Nomads that once lived on the steppes of Kazakhstan, and that's what gave Viktor the idea of burying their own treasure. 

Antonina doesn't want to touch the teeth, so she makes Viktor drop them straight into the middle of the newspaper. Her doll knocks against their ugliness when she wraps them together. It doesn’t feel right to leave her doll there like that. She wants it back, and decides to retrieve it when Viktor's mother takes him for a day trip to the city. For now, she will play along.  

They find a small nook. Their own miniature cave. It's perfect—big enough for the burial and nothing more. A gap that’s easily hidden with a pile of loose rocks pushed up against the opening. Afterwards, they relax on the verge of the rock that spreads like an open palm, where the wind whistles like its blowing over the top of empty soda bottles. Antonina lets her feet swing free and nibbles the edge of her chrysanthemum cake—around and around until a circle of jellied honey remains. They listen to make sure no one is calling them home, but all is quiet except for the tiny avalanches of loose stones that topple over the edge. 

Viktor opens his mouth to show the disk of honey on his tongue, and without having to say so, they are in competition to see whose will last the longest. Side-by-side, they sit in silence trying not to chew the disk, but it's impossible, and it's gone before Antonina realises she's lost the game. The city of Alma-Ata sprawls out in the lowlands before them covered in the day's lazy smog. Above it, the crisp blue sky spreads long and wide and cool and calm. Feathered with clouds that seem so close Antonina is sure she could reach out and touch them if she tried. This is her safe place. Here she is away from the taunts of Petre and her other classmates who call her liar. She releases a happy, satisfied little sigh and places her head on Viktor's shoulder. He slips his arm around her back and doesn't mind when she twirls a curl at the base of his neck. 

 

About Rosetta Allan

Rosetta Allan is an Auckland-based writer and graduate of the Master of Creative Writing Programme, University of Auckland, who grew up in Hawke's Bay. Her first poetry collection, Little Rock, was released in 2007, and her second volume, Over lunch, in 2010. Her poetry has appeared in publications and anthologies in New Zealand, Australia and the USA, and in online literary journals. Rosetta's first novel, Purgatory, is based on the Otahuhu murders of 1865.