Doll's Eye

Leah Kaminsky

(Australia)

CHAPTER 16 

BIRDUM 

THURSDAY 29 TH SEPTEMBER, 1938 

Wet dawn. The wind moaned. White lightning hooked itself violently into the land. Overnight, the sky had cracked open entirely, rain spilling like grey ink onto parched earth, filling holes that gaped with thirst. Balding, shabby eucalypts swayed their arms violently in both greeting and fear. Lizards hid in the crevices of floorboards on the hotel veranda.

His eyelids heavy, Alter felt fearful of what daylight might bring. What had started as a dance led to a kiss, and this morning he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed in the aftermath of making love to Anna. Would it be delight or shame that hung over them both? He heard her softly calling his name and, turning to face her, found himself once more in her arms. He had known her less than a week but in that time felt a longing for her he never thought possible. He cursed himself, wishing he believed in a God who might hear his anguish too. A German woman with no history. For all he knew she could be a Nazi spy. He prayed to himself, to the long-dead, to anything or anyone who might assuage his fears, to soothe this ridiculous angst. He wept to think the only true peace he would ever know would be when he was a mere handful of dust inside the grave. He was overreacting. She could never wish him any harm; Anna was the embodiment of compassion.

A blowfly circled the ceiling in its noisy attempt at escape. They lay together in Anna’s narrow bed as dawn light melted through the curtains. Her girlish shyness crept back after a night in which their craving for each other’s bodies had hardly let them sleep. He kissed her again, the stubble on his chin scraping against her cheek.

‘Tell me about before.’

Such an awkward question to throw into the stillness after such a storm. He was tugging at shadows, trying to fill in the vague outline she had given him. A bird called urgently outside, raising an alarm.

‘Why conjure up the past? I’m happy here.’ She listened to the words sneak out from her.

He tickled her belly. ‘You’re a bad liar, you know.’ He was prising open a door she was determined to keep shut.

She slapped him playfully. ‘And you are a thief who would mine a person’s life just to craft a poem.’

Leaning across, Anna stroked Alter’s cheek. They kissed. His mouth, which a moment ago had looked small and vulnerable, turned into the jaws of a hungry animal, demanding and devouring. It was a welcome distraction. Anna was not one for intimate revelations; she excelled in evasion. Instead, she spoke to him with the language of her body.

It was almost 7 a.m. when they woke again. She got up to dress, leaving him sprawled out under the covers, the heat of his body still imprinted on her skin. Anna was a mystery to Alter – he sensed some abysmal loss at her very core. She had given him a thumbnail sketch – her mother had died when she was seven, leaving her alone with her father. And then there was the boat trip to Australia. He caught her reflection in the mirror. He suspected that all she had known back in Europe was lost forever. How could he possibly see what she carried in her depths? Working behind the counter in the hotel she showed a lacquered friendliness to everyone, struggling hard to conceal the sadness he knew was there.

He stared out at the surrounding scrub that was starting to disappear under a watery landscape stretching as far as the eye could see. Humidity rose from the ground, enfolding everything in its oppressive damp arms. Insects thrummed as flashes of lightning announced deafening rolls of thunder. Dark-grey clouds reflected in Alter’s eyes, consuming the blue.

Leaping Lena was due to lurch into the station the following evening. Early Saturday morning he would have been on his way to Darwin, where he planned to stay for a couple of days before heading back to Melbourne. But word came via telegraph the night before that the early start to the wet season, heralded by a sudden heavy downpour, had flooded the town of Mataranka, 100 miles to the north. The train was stuck there after being derailed, and no one knew how long it would take to get it up and running again. For now, there would be no train until the floods receded.

The rains forced him to change his plans again, or at least that’s what he told himself. He was secretly relieved to have the chance to spend more time with Anna. She was a mystery he needed to solve. He was determined to figure out the enigmatic laws that governed this woman he had seemed destined to stumble upon in the middle of the outback. It was a biblical story, this wandering through the desert, the sudden downpour and flooding, swarms of locusts. It seemed possible, in that purgatory of time and space imposed upon them, that he may be able to reach closer to her centre.

Another week’s delay wouldn’t make much difference to his travels.

For the white folk, Birdum was the conquest of a hostile landscape. Built on the banks of a shrunken riverbed, it was born from the dream of a train that would bisect the heart of the country from top to bottom. Alter saw it as a possible safe haven, but Anna thought of Birdum more as a dull mote on an intricate carpet. She had woken in the depths of the shuddering night, long after the lamp had stopped hissing. Restless in her half-dreams, she left Alter lying there fast asleep and padded outside to the veranda. In the storm, she sat shivering as she listened to distant moaning echoing across the bush. She remembered the howling of wolves from the depths of the forest back home. She had thought she could hide away inside this scuffed, silent country and slowly creak back to life. Out here, though, despite the vastness that surrounded her – with its yelps, yawps and muffled whispers – she still felt as though Professor Jäger and his cronies were watching her. She lit the lamp and set it down beside her. A mouse who had been scuttling along the wooden boards suddenly froze, looking straight at her, its eyes strangely opaque, the wide round pupil and muddy iris marooned on an island of white. It glared mockingly, as if to say: Anna, you are a mouse, not a phoenix. Alter was chiselling away at her heart, even though she thought it had turned to stone long ago. She had been determined to stand on her own two feet, promising herself she would never take up with a man. Flesh had betrayed her.

CHAPTER 17 

BIRDUM 

OCTOBER, 1938 

Ochre mud covered the floor, stagnant and slippery, thick as paint. Gubbins was howling, pulling at a rope that tied him to a pole. Anna tossed the scrawny dog a chicken wing that he fell upon vora- ciously. When he was done, he licked her hand and soon curled up and fell asleep, caked in mud.

Anna went out front to the veranda and stood staring at the rising waters that had been urged on overnight by more torrential rain. Almost a month of incessant storms had forced rivulets to surge, forming a lake that almost reached the top of the stairs, lapping at the entrance to the hotel. Heavy mist swallowed the tops of trees. During a short let-up in the downpour Tom O’Hara had waded across to the shed and pulled out a rusty dinghy. He fastened it to the edge of the hotel veranda, where it rocked on its mooring. Leeches swollen to the size of grapes clasped onto his ankles, gorging voraciously on his blood. Anna watched water pour over the eaves like shiny ribbons. She had placed buckets under the roof, the drops tapping out soggy tunes. The land had become an ocean, as if the sea wanted to reclaim what it had once conquered millions of years ago.

Even though there were only a few people left in town, most of Anna’s day was taken up by the drudgery of chores – preparing meals, washing dishes, mopping muddy floors. At dusk, swallows darted across the surface of the water, flying low out of the damp mist in a glittering spray of colour. Crows wailed, cockatoos scolded and shrieked, and a hawk circled above, swooping and diving before it vanished back into the darkening sky. Despite the rains, the fierce heat brought with it a turbid anguish. Languid, wrapped in a cocoon of mist, the townsfolk and stragglers lined up along the bar, drinking themselves into a stupor, the pub oozing the pungent smell of beer and sweat. When evening came and Anna had finally finished her work, the last of the patrons stumbling back to their rooms, she stepped out onto the veranda to say goodnight to Alter. She had allowed him to charm her completely. Sitting there holding his evening pipe between his lips, he stared straight ahead.

He looked shaggy, his sleeves rolled up to reveal his forearms scabbed with insect bites. His face was pale, his skin wrong for this climate. The back of his shirt looked like flypaper, covered in huge blowflies. Clouds of mosquitoes cleaved the air.

‘One more week of this and we’ll all find ourselves drowning in a desert,’ he said, smiling. He puffed out a smoke cloud. ‘Although if I have to be stuck in this purgatorial pub in a purgatorial town, I’m glad that at least it’s with you.’

What he didn’t tell her was that he felt somewhat relieved – the rains an excuse for him to stay with Anna.

But Alter couldn’t know what fragile goods he was handling. For Anna, a true collector would fall in love with a doll at first sight, despite its missing fingers and damaged head. Rummaging through piles of toys at flea markets or unearthing something buried at the bottom of a box out the back of a junk shop, that crazy moment of exhilaration, when treasure surfaces, was impossible to silence. Her love affair with Alter had begun like that too, emerging in such an unexpected place.

They went inside and he followed her down the corridor. She hung the bunch of keys on a hook behind her door, lit the lamp and climbed into bed fully clothed, too tired to undress. The mattress was hard and thin. Rain lashed against the window, the wind howling through the cracks. Alter sat on a chair scribbling in his notebook. She picked up a book, but soon the words turned blurry. The flame faded in the lamp, crackled, and died out. She lay in the dark, eyes wide open. He climbed in beside her. Soon her wakefulness turned to dreams in which the water rose and flooded the hotel, trapping her inside.

The dog howled. Thunder rumbled overhead, clouds unthread- ing into a fierce storm. Another night of feverish lovemaking. They hid under the covers to avoid the insistent mosquitoes divebomb- ing their sweaty skin. Two strangers clawing at each other’s past, they were intoxicated by their shadows climbing into each other, their sighs an echo of distant shores.

‘Does your memoir begin here?’ she whispered, ‘With us?’

‘I guess all voyages have to start somewhere.’ He scratched at a bite on his forehead.

‘So, do you always make a habit of dipping your pen in the ink of someone else’s story before drifting on to the next?’ Their histories had collided and the mere thought of this being a fleeting encounter made her feel a little ill.

Alter didn’t answer. He wished he could eavesdrop on her thoughts, tiptoe around her brain at night, spying on nightmares that choked her breathing. But the past was obscured by lurid smoke, distorting vision behind the heavy eyelids of sleep. Her kisses were sweet, but she kept her feelings to herself. As she slept, the night was peppered with her quiet sighs. What was it that she did not want anyone to see? And what had cleaved her from Europe?

The morning was still, both rain and wind easing a little overnight. The whirring sound of insects harmonised with the soft drizzle on the foggy window. A quiet sky, dense with cloud, hung over the town in a veil of oppression. Rising at dawn, she found twisted sheets and blankets slumped on the floor. She saw her face in the cracked mirror that was mounted on the back of the door. She had huge black rings under her eyes.

Alter was woken abruptly by a blowfly, although he couldn’t be sure the buzzing wasn’t coming from inside his head. A black- bird trilling outside the window called to him in a familiar voice: Come home! Come home! The wet season exhaled the sour-sweet smell of longing. It would soon be time to leave. Drenched and exhausted, he felt himself gasping like a perch dragged up onto the banks of a river. Even the frogs seemed to be croaking a farewell song. Although he was tempted to stay here with Anna, Birdum had grown too small to hold him. He laughed at the thought, as if it were ever big enough to contain more than a few ramshackle buildings and its transient inhabitants. Once again he was drawn towards the unknown. He shivered with a familiar longing, the wind whistling its lonely song as it rattled at the doors and windows again, clawing to come inside. He was a true vagabond.

Back home, Alter had always thought if there was no other way to earn a living he could become a book peddler. After all, how much does a Yiddish writer earn from his scribblings? He would build a small cart and find an old nag that had been put out to pasture. Even if it limped along slowly it wouldn’t matter – there was no rush. Piling up the books, he would cover them with a blanket if it rained. He might also need to sell prayer books and trinkets to keep his horse fed. But what better life for a writer – wandering the countryside and collecting stories for free?

He had once visited an institute in the town of Vilna that housed an archive of Jewish items put together by zamlers, hundreds of people from across Eastern Europe who went about collecting objects and documents on all aspects of Jewish life. There, you could find anything, from incunabula, eyewitness accounts of pogroms, to the journals of notable Jewish writers like I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem.

‘We are both zamlers – collectors – you collect dolls, and I collect stories,’ he told Anna, leaning back on the couch in the Lemon and Claret Room later that afternoon. ‘A writer I once knew, who called himself Ansky, travelled around the Ukraine for two years before the Great War broke out, visiting old people hidden away in their tiny shtetls. Like a true zamler, he filled his notebooks with their stories. Amol is gevezen, once upon a time, rested upon the lips of all those he spoke to – shopkeepers, tailors, rabbis and streetwalkers alike. A hurricane of Yiddish stories piled up in his notebooks.’ He thought for a few moments before he spoke again. ‘You and I could do that.’

‘Do what?’

‘Collect stories. It’s not a bad idea, you know.’ ‘I’m not so sure.’

‘Oh, come on, Anna. There are so many odd characters around these parts. But that’s not who I’m talking about, anyway. There are others here whose stories must be told.’

‘It isn’t for us to collect their stories. We know nothing of their culture, their traditions, their rules. It would be intruding.’

‘Or trying to preserve what is being lost. Like what I do with my own language. Only Yiddish has no land, no borders. Its only soldiers are its writers, and their only weapons are fountain pens.’

‘You should visit Katherine if it’s unusual stories you’re looking for.’ She threw him a line, knowing he couldn’t resist being lured into another adventure.

‘What’s so special about it?’ ‘Russian peanut farmers.’

‘What?’ He slapped his thigh. ‘Perfect! I must stop there along the way.’

‘Why do you love travelling so much?’ she asked. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘Why do you always have to answer a question with another question?’

‘Isn’t that exactly what you just did?’

Exasperating. Endearing. Annoying. Charming. He was all those, and more. Alter was a man who never really spoke – rather, he sang. The cadence of his words followed a melody that rose in a crescendo, then suddenly fell away to a mere whisper. It came from his love of Yiddish.

‘When you learn Talmud, the interpretation of the written rules of the Torah, you must read with a melody and study with a tune. The singsong of my beloved Yiddish and its penchant for questioning the questioner are derived directly from this.’

Anna watched Alter’s eyes glaze over. He seemed transported to another place, another time.

‘You know, being a wayfarer is rather a new enterprise for a Jew.’ He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. ‘In the olden days, not only was it forbidden to leave home, but going on any kind of journey would entail risking your own life. Yet every generation has its courageous souls, who rise from among the fearful masses and take a gamble when opportunity presents itself. That is the history of my people, from our earliest times. Yes, they were shoemakers, blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, tailors, but there were also those who, by the very nature of their trade, were forced to become wanderers.’

An insect buzzed around his head and he swatted it.

‘I’m a poet. For me, nothing is ordinary. Wonder lies hidden in everything; even a stone holds a story. When I travel, I am cut loose from banality and become a voyeur, unable to resist the lure of new vistas that may lie ahead. I feel my vision become sharper; I notice the strangeness of the familiar and the plenitude of the unexpected. I am a child again, bathed in the realm of wonder. I can see the surprising beauty in things; this juxtaposition is living poetry.’

Alter was a city type, a man who had been desperate to try and secure his name among elite literary circles back home. But his eyes betrayed a muted sadness – perhaps from witnessing what was happening across Europe, and seeing too far into the future.

His face turned blank, as if he had dropped a precious vial that contained his excitement. ‘I’m afraid it will not bode well for us,’ he told Anna.

She looked away, her heart skipping a beat.

‘No, no! I’m not talking about you and me.’ He placed his hand on hers. ‘I meant my fellow Jews back home.’

She felt embarrassed, her concerns over matters of the heart overshadowing his fears for his people. She looked down at their intertwined fingers. It would be fine.

‘I feel so safe here with you’, he said.

She understood what he meant, the distance from Europe, the seemingly endless space. A landscape so vast, too large for the eye to take in all at once. The allure of this vista – a sky that caressed the earth. But the less you see, the more confident you are in what you have. This place was not untouched, nor was it an empty nothingness to fill: the land held deep secrets. Alter felt the siren call of potential, whereas for Anna the land held magic that needed to be protected.

‘Augenblick’, her father would say. It was a game they used to play. She would close her eyes as he spun her around. She felt the world turning. Just as she was about to topple over, he placed his hands on her head to steady her, shouting, ‘Augenblick!’ Like a doll, her eyes became the only movable part of her face. She opened them and blinked slowly, photographing in her mind what she saw: a mallard preening its wing, the gardener chopping wood. These moments burned into her memory like a photograph. Years later, stamped into the echoes of time, she could still recall the joy she had felt playing with her father, shrieking with delight as he whizzed her around and around.

The memories folded into each other like a matryoshka, a doll-within-a-doll, the innermost hidden tiny homunculus still recognisable as the exemplar of its kind. Suddenly, it gained a painted-on flourish of a moustache, a pair of thick bushy eyebrows and a familiar, steely gaze – a miniature Professor Jäger. That split second is all Anna ever remembered, and even for that she had to search through a haze of images, looking for what she feared to find. She tried to focus on what he held in his hand.

Her breath slowed as she sat there, her father now a blur at the edge of the frame. The tail of his coat partially obstructed the view – a tiny fleck of the all-too-familiar gingham pinafore, one white ankle sock tucked inside a black shoe. An upside-down blue eye stared back at her, lids wide open, as if begging for help. Augenblick. A flash suspended in time, suddenly vanished. Simmering for years, the reluctant memory of Professor Jäger holding Lalka and taking her away slowly started to surface.

‘Papa?’ she had called. ‘Papa!’

Soon she was being carried back to the car, reaching out for her beloved doll. There must have been screams, a hand gagging her mouth as she swallowed her own tears.

‘Shh! Shh!’ Papa’s voice, washing like waves over her terror. ‘It will be all right. Lalka will come back to you soon. I promise.’

A little holiday. A trip to see her friends. A visit to the doll doctor for a check-up. He might have said any one of those things. His words had sunk too deep into the bedrock of childhood to uproot. She tried to goad her mind into remembering, but snares trapped the emptiness of forgetting. The pastel-green wall behind Professor Jäger seeped back across the years, his sudden turning away to hide Lalka inside his coat. It had felt like a little death.

She sat beside Alter on the veranda that evening. The lantern threw long shadows over their faces, surrounding them with an aureole of muted light. They heard something move nearby and sat still, but whatever it was had stopped, or slithered away. Torn corrugated iron clattered against the side of the building. The next morning, she found Gubbins in the corner of the kitchen, lying motionless on his side.

*****

​Doll’s Eye is available at all good booksellers including Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US).

Leah Kaminsky

is a

Former Footsteps Editor for Panorama.

Leah Kaminsky’s debut novel The Waiting Room won the Voss Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Helen Asher Award (Vintage Australia 2015, Harper Perennial US 2016). Her second novel, The Hollow Bones (Vintage) won the 2019 International Book Awards in both Literary Fiction & Historical Fiction categories and the 2019 Best Book Awards for Literary Fiction. Her third novel is Doll’s Eye (Penguin-Random House Australia, 2023). She has written for the BBC, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Monocle, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Griffith Review, SBS, LitHub, The Rumpus, National Theatre UK, Griffith Review, Forward, Creative Nonfiction, Hunger Mountain, Antipodes, Metazen, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Chicago Quarterly Review, r,kv.r.y, Hippocrates Poetry Prize anthology, The Ampersand Review, [PANK], Voices, Australian Poetry, Quadrant, The Binnacle, Evening Paper, Victorian Writer, The Examined Life, Mattoid, Cordite Poetry Review, Transnational Literature, amongst others.

Loading...