Saturday, February 26, 2022

"War comes whatever you sing" ~ Janet Frame


By Janet Frame
(First published in The Lagoon and other Stories, 1952)

The sunflowers got us, the black seeds stuck in our hair, my mother went about saying in a high voice like the wind sunflowers kiddies, ah sunflowers.

We lived on the Steppes, my mother and the rest of my family and I, but mostly my mother because she was bigger than the rest. She stood outside in the sun. She held a sunflower in her hand. It was the biggest, blackest sunflower in Russia, and my mother said over and over again ah sunflowers.

I shall never forget being in Russia. We wore big high boots in the winter, and in the summer we went barefoot and wriggled our toes in the mud whenever it rained, and when there was snow on the ground we went outside under the trees to sing a Russian song, it went like this, I'm singing it to myself so you can't hear, tra-tra-tra, something about sunflowers and a tall sky and the war rolling through the grass, tra-tra-tra, it was a very nice song that we sang.

In space and time.

There are no lands outside, they are fenced inside us, a fence of being and we are the world my mother told us ⁰we are Russian because we have this sunflower in our garden.

It grew in those days near the cow-byre and the potato patch. It was a little plant with a few little black seeds sometimes, and a scraggy flower with a black heart, like a big daisy only yellow and black, but it was too tall for us to see properly, the daisies were nearer our size.

All day on the lawn we made daisy chains and buttercup chains, sticking our teeth through the bitter stems.

All day on the lawn, don't you remember the smell of them, the new white daisies, you stuff your face amongst them and you put the buttercups under your chin to see if you love butter, and you do love butter anyway so what's the use, but the yellow shadow is Real Proof, Oh you love early, sitting amongst the wet painted buttercups.

And then out of the spring and summer days the War came. An ordinary war like the Hundred Years or the Wars of the Roses or the Great War where my father went and sang Tipperary. All of the soldiers on my father's side sang Tipperary, it was to show they were getting somewhere, and the louder they sang it the more sure they felt about getting there.

And the louder they sang it the more scared they felt inside.

Well in the Russian War we didn't sing Tipperary or Pack up your Troubles or There's a Long Long Trail A-Winding.

We had sunflowers by the fence near where the fat white cow got milked. We had big high boots in winter.

We were just Russian children on the Steppes, singing tra-tra-tra, quietly with our mother and father, but war comes whatever you sing.

1 comment:

Nic Treadwell said...

Thanks for posting this piece. It has a potent mix of childlike imagination and invention. We can all remember creating worlds within the safe and protective environment of our childhood, where it seemed that nothing and no one could infringe on the magical landscape of play. Janet’s story places us right at the heart of that improvised creativity where one symbol or idea can transform an entire afternoon to a far away country. Even if some of the facts of that invented world are innocently a little wrong, it doesn’t matter to a child, who only follows what their mother is also innocently inventing. It’s even more poignant to the times we now find ourselves in with the looming threat of war, that no matter what external threat may pose, there is always the silent retreat of the inner world where a writer, or a child can bend the world to their own dreams.