Deakin University

 

Fragments of a Map

A novel

Tess Brady

 

CONTENTS

Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

 

Acknowledgements

The novel contains quotations and references from the following:

Ch2 A comprehensive description of the dig can be found in: Ingstad, Anne Stine, "The Norse Settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. A preliminary report from the excavations 1961-1968" in Acta Archaeological, Vol 41, 1970, Pp109-54

Ch3 The Prophecy of the Wise-Woman is from the Voluspa, Poetic Edda. The full translation can be found in: Simpson, Jacquelin, trans. The Northmen Talk. A Choice of Tales from Iceland Phoenix House, London, 1965

Ch4 A full translation of Eirik the Red's Saga and also its companion saga, The Greenlander's Saga can be found in Magnusson, Magnus: Palsson, Hermann, trans. The Vinland Sagas. The Norse Discovery of America, Graenlendings Saga and Eirik's Saga Penguin, England 1965

Ch5 Details of the rediscovery of the Vinland Map can be found in Skelton, R. A.; Marston, Thomas E.; Painter, George D., Eds. The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relations New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1965

Ch6 For further details on Carmentis see Christina de Pizan The Book of the City of Ladies Section 33; trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards, Persea Books, New York 1982 Pp70-73

Ch7 translation of the Sumerian poem: Wolkstein, Diane; Kramer, Samuel Noah, Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth. Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer Rider, London 1984

Ch8 Quotation comes from Canton 1 of Lord Byron's "Child Harold's Pilgrimage". The full poem can be found in Byron, Lord The Poetic Works of Lord Byron Oxford University Press, London, 1904

Ch9 Quotation from a ghazal of the 12th century Iranian poet Hafiz. A translation by R. M. Rehder can be found in James Kritzeck (Ed) Anthology of Islamic Literature Holt Rinehart & Winston, New York 1964 P270.
The medieval questions come from a list put together by Adelard of Bath (1100c). See Ross, James Bruce; McLaughlin, Mary Martin, Eds. & Trans The Portable Medieval Reader Penguin, England 1955. Pp620-626
The Madonna of the Rose Arbor, Martin Schongauer, 1473, panel, 2.00x1.15 meters, held in the collection of St. Martin, Colmar, France. It is arguably the most famous of his paintings and the only one dated. The actual inscription on the painting reads "Me carpes genito to qu O Sctissi a V."

Ch11 A detailed account of this story of cartographic espionage can be found in Arthur Davies, "Behaim, Martellus and Columbus" in Geographical Journal Vol 143, November 1977 Pp 451-459

Ch12 A full account of the stories of Chingis Khan, his son's armies and the customs and habits of the Tartars can be found in George Painter's translation of the Tartar Relations. P54-101 in Skelton, R. A.; Marston, Thomas, E.; Painter, George D. The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation Yale University Press, New Haven, 1965

Ch14 Quotation from Dylan Thomas Collected Poems London Dent 1952

Ch15 Korda Productions, a production company in part financed by the British Intelligence Service MI6, was the production company for the film The Third Man. (1949) Directed by Carol Reed and written by Reed and Graham Greene


 

The Map

She took from her pocket the mandalas she had been storing for all of her life and, one by one, she showed them to him.


 

1


The First Mandala - Projection

I had been distracted by my father's papers and not heard the beginning.

By the time I got to my front door a crowd had massed in the street. A woman at the hub of it called out, "Phone the police." Another woman, an older woman who commanded some authority, stopped the first one and said, "No! An ambulance."

I picked up the hall phone and dialed. I fumbled the number and dialed again, this time a little slower. I was never very good in emergencies. I spoke deliberately, slowly, making sure they knew which house to come to.

I walked out as far as the veranda, there might be something else I could do, and I was curious, but I found myself holding back, afraid as always of the sight of blood or broken bodies. The crowd was too dense for me to see what the problem was even from the height of the veranda so I steadied myself and went to the gate. Then I saw her.

"What does she need an ambulance for?" I asked the older woman who'd suggested it.

"They'll take her back, back to where she came from, where she belongs." And she glared at me as if I had known this all along.

It was only then that I realised this woman, and all the others who had crowded around, were afraid of the one on the ground.

I looked down at her; she was probably the oldest woman I had ever seen. She sat leaning against the gate, partly on the footpath and partly on my garden path. In complete defiance of fashion and circumstance, she wore a bright frilly purple hat that looked as if it had come from a child's dress-up box. The hat was all fluff and colour and caught what little sun there was that day like a joke catches laughter. The other strange thing about her was her chanting - it wasn't loud, but constant - a chant which seemed to come from the depth of her body.

I bent closer to hear her, to make out the words, but I could only catch snatches... "Diddle... little... diddle.... diddle...."

I looked around again at the crowd and was about to ask why she needed to be carted away when the ambulance arrived. There was no fuss. The ambulance personnel lifted her up and without speaking, without questions, as if this had been done many times before, she was very quickly shut into the ambulance. As they closed the doors on her she had just enough time to catch my eye. For that brief second she stopped chanting and stared at me - she stared as if she had always been aware of me, as if it was me she had come to see; me who was sending her away.

The crowd dispersed and I watched the ambulance drive away.

I felt uneasy, as if I was being drawn towards some strangeness I wanted to avoid, towards something too complex or too raw. Had I, in that brief moment, tasted what the others feared? I shook my head trying to free myself from the grip of her stare. It was not something I wanted to remember.

I went back to my study, the old atlas and my father's papers, but all day the colour purple caught my eye. By night, when I finally slept, I knew she had entered my memory.

 


2


Crete called me, moon-voiced and wanting to talk. We agreed to meet later in the day, at the herbarium. It was a favourite place of hers.

I arrived only a few minutes before her, just in time to see her stride in. She was wearing makeup, an unusual thing for Crete, and she'd recently been to the hairdressers; the grey was coloured out of her hair. Her unbuttoned coat billowed behind her and it gave her an almost medieval look, as if she was striding across her own cloisters. She was as at home in this place as she was in a library or in the corridors of the University. But today she was distracted, searching in her pockets for something.

Fussed with work her voice was firmer, stronger and more self-assured than it had been on the phone. Whatever had been worrying her earlier would come out soon enough - it's common enough to camouflage our raw emotions with efficiency, annoyance or urgency.

"Hi, Meridian, good of you to meet me here," she said casually and then continued to search her pockets. "I've got the name of it somewhere. Long Latin thing. Can't remember it, not that name." At last she found what she was looking for, a small piece of notepad paper. She unfolded it. "I prefer its common name, feverfew," she smiled. "Easy name, you don't have to write that one down, but this..." She stumbled with the Latin, "Pyrethrum parthenium, erythraea centaurium."

I took the piece of paper. Her knowledge of Latin was pitiful and in copying down the botanical name for the plant she had combined two different naming systems. It was odd how Latin, that long dead language, had been the thing which had brought us together. Crete, a medievalist of international reputation, had the dodgiest Latin I had ever come across. It was just one of those things, she never could get a feel for the language.

She made her way down a bed looking at the names of the plants; it was as if she couldn't keep still. She turned and glanced at me, more to ensure I was following her than anything else. "You know, the ordering of plants is difficult isn't it? I keep expecting them to be alphabetical, or by smell, or colour, or something that, well, makes sense to me."

"Aristotle."

"Mmm," she agreed distractedly. "All those boys, Aristotle, and the boys of the Enlightenment, Bacon, the French Encyclopaedists, all of them. Bloody cheek really, to set about ordering our plants". She pulled nervously at the piece of paper; "I wonder how women would have ordered the plants or if we'd bother at all?"

"By their use?" I suggested trying to carry on the conversation, but all the time I was watching her, wondering what was troubling her so greatly.

"Yes! I like that. All the cooking ones to one side, the medicine and potions and spells to another. Those for perfume and those for colour in another part." She gestured extravagantly and her coat billowed. "Can you imagine it? And we'd worry about what it looked like."

"...Maybe a garden."

"Exactly."

"So this plant," I asked, "what's it for?"

"A potion." Her answer was quick and direct as if my question had been to no avail. She took out her reading glasses and continued, delivering me a lecture I had heard many times before. "It's one thing to read about the medieval women's potions and recipes but its entirely another to have to go to the trouble of making the things. They're fiddly and time consuming and some are anything but stable." Her eyes darted around the rows of plants as if she was looking not so much for a particular specimium but rather for some hidden clue, some knowledge which she has somehow misplaced amongst the greenery, or perhaps she had never owned it, and was now searching for it.

Quite suddenly I was reminded of the old woman at my gate, how the others had been afraid of her, and how they had carted her off, shut her off from the world. I said, without even thinking, "Careful, it could be dangerous." And, wondering where my caution came from, I added, "You could poison yourself."

She shrugged. "Poisoning myself is the least of my worries. Fending off the accusation of witchcraft, now that's a real threat." With her reading glasses on she began looking carefully at the labels of the plants.

"More complaints?"

She nodded then grinned, "The great part is they are thinking of taking me off teaching altogether, I'm some kind of risk to the University. More time for potions!" Her attention was immediately given back to the task of finding the herb. As she did so she recited for my benefit: "Dried and made into a powder, two drams mixed with honey or sweet wine will purge the melancholy." She smiled, "I think I'll mix it with mead, like a Viking queen, should do the trick." She continued to recite: "Good for giddiness of the head, those suffering from vertigo, or where they have become so light headed they have lost speech."

"Your condition?"

Crete sat on the edge of a plant bed. At last she was still. She took her time to speak. "I wish I was troubled by some great universal truth, but I'm not. It's Gabbett of course, he rang and..." She was distracted, fidgety. I let her continue without interruption. "Meridian, if I talk to anyone else about this they'll think I'm mad....a woman of my age isn't meant to be distracted by romance, I'm meant to have it all under control." She bit her lip and left a space in the conversation, but I decided it was best to say nothing. She continued. "He's coming over. I've cancelled all my appointments. Can you believe it? I told them I had to meet this film producer. I said he was only over for the day and I might need to spend the entire day with him... Meridian?"

"A film producer?" It seemed a rather elaborate ruse.

"Sure, that's what he does. Didn't I tell you? He makes docos for SBS. That's how we met."

I put my arm around her; there wasn't much I felt comfortable saying. I talked casually about work, about cooking, about our kids. It was an awkward distraction but I didn't know what else to do. There had been a time in my life when faced with friends lost in their own emotions I would hit the automatic pilot and recited a monologue on bread making. The monologue lasted for almost an hour and by that time the troubled friend had centred themselves again and I no longer felt in danger of having to take on board their problems, their life. It was a habit I'd taken some time to drop. I talked about work.

She turned towards me. "Yes, you're right. Focus. Keep telling me to focus. That's what we academic girls are good at aren't we." She was close to tears. "It's just, Meridian, I'm really scared. I keep feeling myself take that extra step, deeper and deeper, further and further away from the safety of the garden." She was calming herself, taking her time to speak. "It's as if I'm in a dream. I know it's dangerous but I'm doing it, I can't help myself, I'm moving faster and faster, like the child with her red dancing shoes."

"...and the axeman cut off her feet so she could no longer dance in her red shoes... she could no longer dance the frantic dance."

Crete reached out and squeezed my arm, almost in fright. "I'll stay away from axe men."

"You do that!"

The moment passed and Crete reoriented herself. "I actually did come here looking for a plant."

We began the search again, hunting through the beds for her feverfew but we couldn't find a plant whose name even vaguely approximated to the herb.

"I guess I'll need one of the botanists." She sounded defeated. "They get so superior when I want one of these herbs. I don't suppose you've got the time to come with me, ask them for the thing in Latin, that would give them somewhere to put their superiority!"

I shook my head. I'd made an appointment to see Eric and I was keen to hear what he had to say. Eric had been translating some of my father's papers, they ones I'd found that morning. They'd been in in one of his old atlases. The notes had been written in Greenlandic, a peculiar habit my father used when he wanted to keep something secret - Greenlandic was not a language many knew, in fact Eric was the only speaker I'd ever met outside of Greenland. Besides, I didn't think I had the energy to take on any more of Crete's battles.

"Fair enough." Her mood became mischievous, "Once I tried to get a specimen via inter-library loan. Unfortunately the librarian didn't quite see it my way. They can get awfully stuffy sometimes."

"They probably have instructions to discourage your witchcraft."

"Research, Meridian. Research." She turned to leave and then remembered something she wanted to tell me, but changed her mind, thinking better of it. I watched her walk away and once again I felt that odd feeling; maybe it was a premonition, maybe it was more of the intuition Crete so often talked about. I wasn't sure. I didn't know how to protect those red shoes from the axeman. How can any of us protect the dream of the dance from those who forbid even the dream?

* * *

It was a pleasant enough day so I walked the short distance to the museum where Eric worked. I was a little early but I didn't think he'd mind. I'd known Eric long enough to walk in unannounced. He was a tall man who had aged with a certain confidence and it was that confidence which I most admired about him. He didn't disguise his greying hair, or his complete lack of interest in his appearance. He avoided fashion, the youth culture and television, and was one of the worst cooks I had ever had the misfortune of dining with. At regular intervals in our friendship he assured me he'd improved, but I was never willing to risk it. We always ate either at my place or at a restaurant.

His office was a clutter of books, papers, unplugged computer bits, specimens, labeled artifacts and unwashed coffee cups. He spoke hurriedly, but I knew he always did, and I wasn't put off by it. On this occasion he sat formally behind his desk and that, rather than his hurried speech, made me nervous.

Eric came straight to the point. "You were right. I think he wanted to keep it from you."

"Shit, What?"

He calmed my nerves a little by telling me it didn't contain any dark family secret. But that only disappointed me.

"I thought perhaps it might have been about his time there, in Greenland."

"No, not that, well not really." Eric was confused. "I suppose it has more to do with how he spent his free time while he was there. It's about the Vinland story, the old Norse saga and a map - the Vinland Map. Do you know it?"

"That map?" I didn't tell Eric I'd found the notes next to a facsimile of the map. "But it's a forgery, a 1950's con by a handful of dealers. And they pulled it off, they made their money." Surely my father had not been taken in by the dealers' wild story of coincidence and chance.

Eric didn't say anything; he shrugged in what I took to be agreement.

"Why did he write about it in Greenlandic?" That was the part I couldn't understand. If he was making notes on the Vinland Map, why conceal them in that obscure language?

Eric was reluctant to hand over the translated notes. "Perhaps he wanted to keep these thoughts to himself."

I frowned. My father was a secretive man but I'd never know that secretiveness to travel into his historical work.

"Before I leave you with your father's notes I think you should..." he paused, a little unsure of himself, "well, know about a dig I was on, years ago."

"It's to do with his notes?"

"Partly. I just think you should know, that's all."

He told me his story.

 

The Second Mandala - Discovery

It was the summer of '62. I'd almost finished my doctorate and Professor Eldjar asked me if I wanted to join his team at the Old Norse dig in Newfoundland. I'd heard of the dig of course, it was in its third year, but I never thought I'd have the chance to join it.

By the third year there was no doubt the Ingstads, Anne and Helge, a husband and wife team, had discovered an old settlement. But they still had to put the pieces together and identify it as a Norse settlement of around the year 1000. If this could be shown, we could prove the Norse navigate the sea to Newfoundland - this northern part of America was their Vinland.

But more importantly, much more important than confirming once again that the Norse were great sea mariners and navigators, what we were really trying to show was that the sagas themselves were more than fanciful stories. You see, it's easy to view the sagas as fiction, as a myth or a fable. What we were doing was reading the sagas as history, as accounts as accurate as the Viking's methods and ideas allowed them to be. After all, what is our own history if it isn't just a collection of our stories, a collection of what we think are important events, what we remember, what we pass down from generation to generation?

So we were working with history itself, with the idea of history. With what constitutes history and what constitutes myth.

The Ingstads were fascinated with the problem and had a keen knowledge of the whole arctic zone. He was governor of Greenland, about the time your father was there.

It was a big project and teams came from all over the world. My team, headed by our Prof., was given the task of excavating house site J. From earlier evidence it looked as if our site was the smithy.

I have to tell you that while the wider dig didn't share our faith that our site was the smithy, none of us had any doubt. Several things were in its favour. The site's distance from the other buildings was a standard protection in case of fire. And quite close was a charcoal kiln, which had been unearthed the previous summer. But to be sure, to prove it, we needed to find something like an anvil stone. And that's what we were looking for.

It was toward the end of the summer, light was shortening and it was getting cold - arctic cold. The winds began to change. They started to come off the Labrador Sea. That's a mean sea, cold currents, cold winds. There were no hills to speak of; nothing to give any shelter from the wind and J site was close to the bay. It was as if the winds were the first warning that winter, dark and cold and ice and slush, were not far away. No one spoke of it, but we all knew time was running out.

Then there was the official announcement - winter was coming early that year and we had to begin packing up. We were only given a couple more weeks and all teams were to leave by the end of the month. That gave us one last week of excavation and the remaining time to close up our site for the winter and break camp. We all knew if we didn't find the anvil stone or maybe an artifact, anything to confirm the use of the building, then we'd have to leave the site unsolved. Leave it for another team, another year. It was our last shot. We were desperate for a find - anything that would make sense of the long summer, anything to justify our being there. We were like a losing Olympic team who had one last shot at the gold.

I remember that morning. It was eerie. The air felt grey and the whole day threatened rain. We had the tarpaulins up; they were flapping in the wind, making an awful racket. An eerie racket. It was the only sound you could hear. Usually a dig is a noisy place, a bit like a building site, radios, talk, that sort of thing, but on that morning the only sound came from the wind and the flapping tarpaulin.

I don't know who first called out. I was working in another part of the site. But suddenly there was a lot of excitement. Eldjar came over and we stood back to let him through. If anyone deserved to clear away the last of the dirt from the stone it was that man. He carefully dusted away the remaining soil, first from the top of the stone, then from around it. The stone was so old it crumbed at touch and threatened to completely shatter. I remember looking at his face as he worked. Every stroke of the brush held his full attention and it seemed as if there was nothing in his world beyond that stone, beyond that find.

There was of course now an enormous amount of work to do and such little time to do it in. We had to document, measure, take samples, film, label, number and code everything. A lot of the team members from the other groups came over to help out, but there's a certain etiquette on a dig, so mostly they just held back, helped with the lamps or secured the tarp, that sort of thing.

I was there Meridian, in the thick of it. I was measuring and labelling and recording. That night I ached. Every bone in my body had caught the chill of the wind, but I didn't care. I was enormously happy. It was my first major find on a dig. You can imagine the feeling of elation. It was as if the whole of my life had been about that summer and everything, from the small to the large, had been worth it. Everything. Living in that tent, putting up with my tent mate, the Norwegian who bragged day and night about his team's finds. Yes, everything. The lack of facilities, the endless messing about with turf and soil and sand. It had all been worth it. We'd found the smithy.

I think it was the moment I fell in love with archaeology, the moment I realised the importance of the find, of any find.

 

"And was it a Norse settlement?"

"Little doubt of it. Carbon dating has been discredited, but for what it's worth it fits nicely with the dates needed." Eric smiled. "It's one of those things. When the carbon dating backs up a find we cite it, when it doesn't, well, I can go on for hours about its inaccuracy."

"So what else do you have besides carbon dating?"

"Humanity. The funny little habits we all have and act upon without even noticing." He gave me a piece of paper. "Draw me a house, any old house."

I did as he asked. I drew the outline of a house much as a child might and I gave it a roof, windows and doors. I handed it back to Eric. "Not much of a drawing I'm afraid."

"It's perfect. You see Meridian, what you've drawn here is the map of a house, the idea of a house. It's rectangular and not square or round. The windows and doors are of a certain height and proportion to the walls and the roof. You've mapped how our culture builds houses." He screwed up my rough drawing and, making a ball of it, tossed it in the bin. "Some things can't be measured scientifically. The reason most archaeologist believe the settlement is an ancient Norse one, of the Vinland Saga period, has nothing to do with the few artifacts found or any carbon dating. It all comes down to the way the houses were constructed and the way the entire settlement was laid out."

"Humanity's habits?"

"Precisely. You know Meridian, we can change a lot of things when we go to a new land but the ordinary things, how we build a house, its dimensions, where windows are placed and the like. Those things are hard habits to break." Eric began to draw as he spoke. "Around the year 1000, houses in both Iceland and Greenland were constructed from turf. They were long in dimension and had a central hearth running down the middle. Like this." He showed me his sketch. "At the Newfoundland site the houses were made of turf, they were long in dimension and had a central hearth." He continued with various architectural details but I was reminded of Crete's methods, of how she wanted to mix up potions to understand the women she studied, to understand some aspect of medieval life. It's how we do the ordinary things that passes on the culture. How we make a salad, where we think windows ought to be, the dimensions of a room or a book. The small and ordinary things, the unnoticed things, the things we take for granted, the things we do without thought. These hold the secrets of civilisations and cultures. Both Eric and Crete knew this; they let it work for them.

Eric continued. "Unlike Greenland or Iceland, in Newfoundland, and close to the site, were forests full of good building timber. It would have been a lot easier to construct a timber house, easier that is for builders with the know-how or the inclination. But no, they built in turf. There's little doubt the houses were made by men and woman who had sailed from Greenland almost a thousand years ago. The Norse legendary Vinland was most certainly Newfoundland."

He picked up the translation of my father's papers and handed them to me. "It's how we see the world that dates us, and it does so much more accurately than any carbon dating or scientific test will ever do. So often we are distracted by the big picture, the great narratives when really we should be focusing on the small, the ordinary business of being a human being."

I looked at his translation. "It's all to do with the Vinland Saga?"

"And the map. But you'll find them incomplete. I think it's simply a few pages of a much larger document. Where did you find them?"

I lied to Eric. I'm not sure why, but I suddenly didn't want him to know where I had found my father's notes. The whole thing was beginning to intrigue me. Why had my father written these notes in Greenlandic and why had he only kept a few pages? There was something else I hadn't mentioned because it didn't seem to be related. With the notes was an old newspaper cutting. It was a feature article on the Kennedy brothers, before J. F. became president. It had come from a newspaper cutting service, a government agency, and judging by the phone number printed under the name of the agency, it was not an Australian organisation. "If I come across anything else?"

Eric nodded. He didn't mind translating. "I seldom have use for the language now, it's good to dust off those Arctic consonants."

I laughed and listened to his story about his current work and the hunt for the paleochestes. It seemed a long way from Newfoundland, from that cold day when they discovered the anvil stone, from the sunsets in the north sky and the myriad of birds flying in for the evening on that low shallow bay. I wondered then what had caught my imagination and taken it so far from home. Was it something about having breathed Greenland's northern air as my first breath? Did the north invade my lungs and my spirit after all?

 


3


...from The Prophecy of the Wise-Woman.
The holy gods went to their judgement seats;
They gave a name to night,
To morning and midday, mid-morn and eve,
To reckon the years aright.


 

Some facts about me.

I was, not out of any national or cultural identity but because of an accident of place, born in the small town of Godthaab, the capital of Greenland. I am not Greenlandic, I am Australian. The accident of my birth is perhaps the singularly most unusual thing about me.

I was born towards the end of the Second World War and that was always offered as an explanation as to why my parents, who had been born and met and married in Australia, should be living in Greenland. At the time my mother fell pregnant with me they had been renting a farm house a little way out of the village of Godthaab, but with her pregnancy they moved to be closer to doctors and the only hospital for miles. In that country, in winter's half of the year, even the small journey from the farmhouse to the town was not without risk and my parents, not being Greenlanders, understandably chose to avoid it. In the village they rented a small, and, judging from the photographs, slightly dilapidated cottage.

I grew; swelling my mother's belly, as the dark of winter shrivelled away leaving just the stain of night, a few hours of darkness in the long days of summer. And in this small cottage, up close to the Arctic Circle, where days and nights fill imbalanced hours, I was born on the longest day of the year, the 22nd of June.

But what were my parents doing in Greenland during the war? The story I was told as a child revolved around my father's profession as an historical geographer. At the time of the war he had been interested in the sagas and was, according to the family stories, spending a few years in Greenland on sabbatical researching the old stories. Since my father later held a private Chair in historical geography all of this made sense to me, and as I grew up, I found no reasons to question it. Family stories attached to our birth are easy to let slide into the realm of mythology where questions seem inappropriate and unusual events commonplace. So it is of little wonder that for many years I just accepted the strange story of my birth.

But adolescence brings prying teachers running classes in family history and sprouting pseudo sociology; teasing friends; and enough self doubt to last for the rest of your life. And so, like so many of us, I began to doubt. I doubted I was my parent's natural child and I invented fantasies of being a Greenlandic waif. I read anything I could find on the Norse adventures, and cursed the fact my hair wasn't platinum blond. I insisted on growing it and wearing it in a long plait, mimicking the image of a Norse maiden I had seen in one of the books. And I had plans to bleach it, but that was, I knew, a matter of timing. I had to work out how to do it, and I had to work out how to get away with it.

What is interesting to me, now I look back, is that I questioned my relationship to my parents, rather than what we were doing in Greenland at that time. That my father was there reading and studying the sagas seemed a completely natural explanation to me.

 

The Third Mandala - Wile

It was my first conscious act of deception.

I waited until I was alone, quite alone in the house, and I made a search for my birth identity. After looking in my mother's private drawers in her bedroom, something I feel even now deeply ashamed of, I searched my father's desk. Eventually, and it took some time, I found the certificate in an envelope with other old papers.

Any feelings of shame that I was disturbing my father's privacy were overcome by the burning necessity to prove to myself whose child I was, and that I had indeed been born in Greenland.

The other day when I discovered his notes in the atlas I had the same feeling: an almost shameless curiosity, which overcame any amount of guilt or doubt. Then, and now, it was the burning desire to know about myself and my heritage, which seems to justify my prying, my intrusion into his world.

I unfolded the papers carefully. They were yellowing, and had been folded for so long that in my nervous hands they didn't open easily. While all the papers in this envelope were in another language, I recognised the officialese of my birth certificate. The details were written in large copperplate letters in dark blue ink. I could decipher my name, and my father's, and my mother's, but the rest was beyond me. My school French and Latin were of little use here.

I found a dictionary and began to work translating as best as I could, the intricacies of the grammar and words. It was quite a challenge and I realised in my schoolgirl attempt that dictionaries were of limited use when I knew little of the way this language ordered words. It was like deciphering a code; an intensely fascinating code that once cracked would yield the origins of my birth. I worked harder than I had ever worked on any lesson until I had translated, at least enough to convince me I was my parent's child, and that I had been born on the day, and in the place they had told me.

I felt both relieved and enormously disappointed. I was relieved that I could, untroubled, enjoy the security of their love, but I was disappointed I was not the lost Norse maid of a great seafaring family. I carefully folded the papers and slipped them back in the envelope, making sure they looked undisturbed. I put them in my father's desk in exactly the place where I had found them.

I had found my birth origins but lost the romance of childhood.

The next day over the evening meal my father said to me, "I thought you might like a copy of your birth certificate. You do things like family history at school, don't you?"

I said nothing. He smiled and handed over a photocopy of the document I had taken such pains to uncover the day before. "Shall I read it to you, explain all the language or would you like to try and translate it yourself? I have a few dictionaries that might help you."

I never tried to deceive my father again.

 

The whole issue lost importance and instead I became distracted by TV idols and rock stars. It was not until I was a little older, when I had begun to question the beliefs and ideologies of my parents, that I once again began to doubt the story of my birth. This time I wanted historical explanations and the image of father sitting out the war in Greenland reading the sagas became comic. What was he doing in Greenland during the war? It was a question that began to obsess me.

With the taste of my last effort at deception lingering in my memory, I asked him directly. He was, however, evasive. "Research," he replied, and expanded at length on some detail of the sagas he knew was quite beyond my knowledge. He closed the topic comically, referring to a family joke; "I was hunting the uniped."

But my curiosity was only fuelled by his evasive tactics. I began to read about Greenland. I began to read about the war and it wasn't long before I realised the importance of Greenland to the American defence strategy, and its strategic placement as a tracking station and a warning base. Bombers and missiles from Europe had to pass by Greenland on their way to the US. For the first time I realised that Greenland was not some kind of wilderness frontier, a haven for anyone wanting to sit out the war undisturbed. It was instead a hub of strategic communication bases. I then remembered my parents talking about their American friends, the photos of one or two and the stories of the dances at the Mess. There had also been talk of a meteorological station, although I was now convinced such a place tracked more than the movements of clouds.

I confronted my father with my version of life on Greenland but he maintained his story and stuck rigidly to his version of his past and my beginning. I did not believe him and he knew it.

I've often wondered why he maintained this story even into my adulthood. I don't so much believe he was protecting either himself or me from some darkness in the family history. I think he thought it no longer mattered. He detested war movies, war memorabilia and Anzac Day. He had no ex-service mates and each Anzac Day he would take himself off fishing - trout fly-fishing. Mum would pack his picnic hamper and early, just about dawn, he'd set off. After dark he'd return and sit quietly in his chair, or perhaps he'd bring home a fish, a rainbow or brown trout, and mum would make a fuss and cook it the way he liked, with flaked almonds and parsley.

It's odd isn't it, how without ever a word passing a whole family can know that a certain day is one for mourning, for private space and reflection. That day, Anzac Day, was father's.

Probably like most girls whose fathers did something or other during the war, I had built up girlhood fantasies about my father the spy, but I knew they had to stay deep in my private thoughts. I couldn't share these daydreams with my school friends as my father just was not the sort to be seen leaping from trains, climbing mountains, or for that matter carrying a pistol in his breast pocket. He was a quiet sort of man who enjoyed books more than action and who seemed to have few friends or confidants. It was mother who was the social one, who dragged him out to dances and arranged dinner parties.

As an adult I have realised that spies are more likely to be quiet secretive people, the kind of person you'd not notice in a lift, rather than the girlhood illusion of flamboyant beauty and bravado. So I've never quite given up the idea that my father spent his war years as a spy. Since we came back to live in Australia, I presume it was for the Allies. Perhaps he spent his time breaking codes; perhaps there were a few submarine rides. I don't know. As my own life took shape, and I had secrets of my own, I learnt to respect his secrecy.

There were other things about Greenland I remember from their stories and from the photo albums. There is a snap shot of my mother holding a baby by a weedy stunted willow growing between two boulders. The tree was no more than four meters high and under it was a caption written in my mother's hand, "Meridian at six months by the tallest tree in Greenland; Tasermiut fjord". When I crossed the Nullarbor, I thought of these treeless countries, the land of my birth, Greenland, where the soil is covered with ice and the land of my culture, Australia, where the inland soil is covered with red earth. Both offer vast treeless landscapes - their large expanses of unmapped terrain threatening the unwise traveller.

It was my mother who taught me to travel cautiously, to pay attention to the maps. She had taken no risks when tuberculosis broke out and she shipped herself and me back to Australia. I was not yet two. We apparently needed to spend some time in a quarantine station before the relatives were allowed to visit us. Father joined us a few months later.

My mother was the socially outward going member of the family. She met my father through her work; and I had often thought that if it had not been her fortune to be working as a laboratory assistant at the university's Geography Department, she might never have even laid eyes on my quiet father.

She had had an unusual childhood in so far as she was permitted to study sciences at school. Not the hard sciences though, when she was young girls weren't permitted into the senior school laboratories where the mysteries of chemistry and physics were explored, but nobody minded her sitting exams in geology and botany. Once, when sorting out her things, I found an exercise book old enough to have come from her childhood. Ferns and grasses were pressed between the pages. Each specimen had been carefully labelled with what I presumed to be its correct botanical name. The pressed plants crumbled at my touch. I wondered if she'd ever collected flowers, pressed their bright petals between heavy books, or if she had always been more interested in the subtleties of grasses. Perhaps the showy blooms of flowers were too excessive for her; after all, she had chosen a quiet man in my father.

I handled the old exercise book as if it was a precious manuscript and felt awkward touching its pages with my ungloved hands, touching pages that contained my mother's girlhood dreams.

But my mother's family was not a wealthy one and it was not possible for her to continue her education. Instead, she took a job that matched, as closely as she could manage, her dreams of becoming a scientist. I often wondered how she felt when the reality of her life occurred to her; when her well mapped out dream of becoming, strange as it may seem, a world authority on glaciers, had vanished into the economic and social realities of her family and the customs of her time. Few then thought it was worth educating girls. Few then thought girls had such dreams.

I had no brothers or sisters but my childhood years were busy ones, crowded with ideas, people, events and make-believe. And I had perhaps an extraordinary advantage over many other children in that I was loved by both of my parents. It was like growing up in a warm environment where food is plentiful and rich with taste. Their love was unfailing, which is not to say we didn't argue, but rather, I can't recall a single moment when I doubted their love for me. This unquestioning love remained like a backdrop to my life, a safety net and a soft landing. I didn't realise how much I had grown accustomed to its security until my father died and my mother could no longer give love, but instead needed it. I think of it as a time when the wells ran dry. It was hard at first, living without their love, learning how to make it myself, how to generate love for others and for myself. Gradually, it took time; I became my own well.

Before my mother grew old, old before her time, she'd tell me stories prompted by photographs, or newspaper clippings, or scraps of material, all carefully pressed and positioned in her photo albums. They were of course much more than photo albums, they were more like journals, a map of my growing up, her growing old. There was a strand of my hair taken from the first cut; my school reports; a card I made for her birthday; and a newspaper clipping, all yellowed now, of my father when he was awarded his personal Chair at the university. There was a small newspaper notice of my grandmother's death and a snippet of the gold material my mother sewed to make my first dance dress. It was all there, our lives together. Those photo albums were like a patchwork where fragments of living evoked the memory of dresses and parties, ceremonies and meetings, partings and laughter. If I could have sewn those photographs, those clippings, those precious pieces of memorabilia into a quilt, I would have done so, and wrapped my mother in it, a shawl against the pain of aging.

After my father died, she moved into a home where care adapts constantly to her increasing Alzheimer. I no longer show her the photo albums. Such details of her living are now hazy and her memory is as soft as her skin. It hangs loosely with time.

And my own adult life?

 

The Fourth Mandala - Moil

Like so many of my contemporaries, I was caught up in the second wave of feminism. Politicised by the events of the Vietnam War, I charged and ran and fought in the streets, my rights as a woman seemed such an obvious demand, such an obvious ask.

So I lived out the social changes of my time, not in any kind of distracted academic way, but as a player performing my part high up on the trapeze. I made posters, I organised, and I threw away my makeup, my girdles and my bras. I untied my body, I untied my identity, I untied my ambitions.

We were busy women then; too busy to give our minds to anything but the struggle to have a voice, to be heard, to infiltrate the male world, to prove we were as good as they were. We had to drink in the front bar - who would want to do that now? We had to take jobs as council labourers - who would want to do that now? We had to reshape the language, demanding our own pronoun. We had to heckle, and insist, and battle, and march, and talk, and scheme, and demand until our voices ran hoarse. Who would want to do that now? There was no time for the frivolous, glorious play of women, for our laughter and light-heartedness, for our healing and generosity, for our great sense of humour. We were busy women, we were serious women, we were women charged with a mission. We had a job to do. We were in the trenches.

Somehow in those early days of my feminism, obsessed with the trappings of sameness - with being as good as, as worthy as, as capable as - I lost touch with my humour, my physical self and my psychic self.

And what, perhaps, is sad about this, is that I know I am not alone in this loss. I am part of a generation of women who struggles with great gaps in my knowledge of myself. I carry with me, like a name, some deep and yet simple confusion. I don't fully understand, for example, the sensation of softness I feel in my fingers when I touch my own hair, my own skin.

Let me explain. With one hand, I touch my lover's skin, with the other I touch myself. But even in the most concealed and hidden places of his body, in crevices and folds that never see the sun, his skin is much coarser, much firmer than mine.

But our difference is greater than the touch of our skin, the trace of our shape. When my lover wakes in the night, his body icy with a cold sweat, I comfort him. He fears grand epic things. We turn on the light. We talk of nothing, the normal, the everyday. The epic issues subside, become navigable and we sleep again. But when I wake in the dead of night startled by a sound, or by a memory, or falling from a dream, he comforts me sleepily, and my fear subsides into the stillness and darkness of the room. I can faintly smell, from somewhere in the house, the night perfume of flowers. I return to sleep. Such is the difference of our dreaming.

So I am left confused. I who have spent so many years fighting for sameness, for equality at any price, am now silently wanting to explore my difference.

I am part of a generation who swallows the sour taste of confusion. We express this confusion in different ways. Some, shall I call this one Helen, when looking at her life, fills herself with regret and calls out that we went too far, we were wrong. And, in an effort to find some comfort and companionship in her old age, she wants to wind back the clock on this or that social reform. I cannot share Helen's regret. And there are others, Margaret, Louise, who now regret they never carried a child, never gave birth.

Still others lost the shape of themselves. I do not mean those women who are the beautiful and large goddesses of our world, but those who hid their tender womanness in the armour of a large and ungentle shape. Robyn, Christine, Julie. Their shape expelled opulence and fecundity, it was a shape where breasts and bellies and buttocks were melded together disguising the curves of womanness. These women cropped their hair so that nothing revealed the softness of their inner thoughts, their vulnerability, their pain. I sometimes wonder if these women where not the most damaged, the most hurt.

And there were other women, Jean, Jenny, Carol who became fiercely academic, competitive, ambitious and determined to win the battles on the work front. They conducted a kind of arm to arm combat with their male peers and took up the dress of the male, the stance of the male, the gaze of the male. Padded shoulders and power dressing made ideal combat clothes, hiding even a sigh, even the slightest sign of fatigue.

There were those who gave up their King James Prayer Book for late night meetings exploring women's spirituality. Karen and Bernice who took up the tarot and the ancient lore. Still others, Pat, Marian, eroded drip by drip, the stone pillars of the male churches. They re-wrote their prayer books. They put women in the front pews; they put women at the altar.

Still others, and I am one of them, fearing suffocation inside a husband's embrace, bounced from one relationship to the next, unable to give anything of the self and offering instead raw sexuality. It was as if my body had become a consolation prize for something completely unobtainable, something I could not own, let alone give or share. How could I give even part of myself when I had lost touch with my private self?

I had lovers and husbands and divorces and a child. But I couldn't now tell you anything of the physical experience of carrying a child, of giving birth, of suckling it at my breast. I can't remember those early men, what their bodies were like or how they made love. I can't remember clothes or dresses or scarves or necklaces or how I wore my hair. My memories of those years are of women's meetings, seminars, tutorial groups. I recall papers, and lectures and books I read. I remember the banners we carried on demonstrations but I do not recall the colour of my child's pusher, or where she went to kindergarten, or what her first day at school was like.

Perhaps it's really quite simple. If you grow up in a war zone, you're bound to have a very different attitude to crossing the street, to nightfall, to a knock on the door, from someone who has only lived in the cities of peace. We all fought; it was enough to mar us, to impress on us all the mark of combat, the mark of the victim. I was no exception.

I am proud of the battles; proud of the world I have made for my daughter, proud of the changes I helped to shape. And I have found contentment. I am happy to live without the confusion of lovers, to live in a house where I can suit myself, where I can leave personal papers scattered about, and where I can receive letters and phone calls from whoever I like without deception. So, while it is true no one greets me at the airport when I return home, it is also true I am not left waiting in a transit lounge for a late partner who is too preoccupied with his own problems to even remember to smile. I have learnt to like the freedom and ease of taxis.

 

For the rest, I am an Australian woman of Celtic stock, my skin is too white for this climate, my hair, which I wear cut not too short, is light reddish-brown. The colour is artificial. I am of medium height but a little plump. I think I have come to enjoy my shape, I have become used to it, the amount of it, the whiteness of my skin and the circles and arcs which make up the physical part of me. I am not fat but I am careful where I buy my clothes.

I have had a series of jobs at universities and, not unlike my father, I am now employed as an historical cartographer spending my time debating finer points of ancient maps. And while I enjoy my work, I admit it is something of an indulgence, or a stroke of luck, to be actually paid a salary for engaging in such eccentricities.

I am 50, and I do not lie about my age.

I am called Meridian.

 

 

Return to Novel Contents

Return to Exegesis Contents Page
Back to Archive Contents
Return to TEXT Home Page


TEXT Archive
October 2010

http://www.textjournal.com.au/archive
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb
Text@griffith.edu.au