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Literary Review

A Voice in the Belly

A Voice in the Belly – extract from the novel by Terri-ann White

Terri-Ann White

Borough of Portsmouth

The Jurors for our Lady the Queen upon their oath present that Carl Dollman per se Guilty late of the Parish of Portsea within the Borough of Portsea with the Borough of Portsmouth Labourer and Teoder Kiakauer late of the same place Labourer on the twenty-third day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty-eight with force and arms at the Parish aforesaid in the Borough aforesaid three silk dresses at the value of four pounds and ten shillings, two satin dresses of the value of six pounds, two pieces of muslin de laine of the value of twenty-three shillings, four shawls of the value of five pounds, five yards of woollen plaid at the value of thirty shillings, two scarves at the value of twenty shillings, one silk visile at the value of twenty-five shillings, four petticoats of the value of eight shillings, three shifts of the value of five shillings, three tablecloths of the value of six shillings, five yards of table cloths linen of the value of seven shillings and four sheets of the value of six shillings of the Goods and Chattels of Henry Seeling, in the dwelling house of the said Henry Seeling there situate, then and there being found then and there in the said dwelling house feloniously did steal take and carry away against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided and against the peace of our Lady the Queen her Crown and Dignity.

Howard

To be each transported for the term–15 years. *

Fremantle

To begin in the one room: its four solid walls, the amazing height to the ceiling, the dimensions and the grace of the corner room. The room looks out onto a peaceful garden, a cultivated native garden, and from its windows you can also see, if you bring a chair into the room and stand on it, the features of the city of Fremantle.

This must be where I first came to think about Theodore Krakouer, my grandmother’s grandfather, and the end of his days in the Swan River Colony. Started to imagine him as an imprisoned body in this asylum for lunatics built by convict labour in 1861 and now used as an Arts Centre. At first with no idea what it might mean to discover a madman in the family. Was it an incorrect diagnosis? Are there concerns about genetic inheritances? What is this deep shame? This man stole satin dresses and fabrics with arms and force, was sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour and sent to Australia when the convict era had almost finished. And died of syphilis and exhaustion at the end of a short life. That room was where my research began. The first artefacts found were two letters and a certificate. The first is dated 30th August, 1873, and states simply that Theodore Krakouer was admitted as a patient to the Fremantle Asylum and that his son Abraham has agreed to pay for the maintenance of the patient during the time of his confinement. It is signed by H. C. Barnett, Medical Practitioner of Fremantle. The second is dated 24 September, twenty-five days later when Barnett, after careful examination, discharges Theodore on the basis of a successful convalescence. This is when he really goes berserk because it is only a matter of two weeks before he is a certified lunatic. He rampages through the streets of Fremantle.

LUNATIC’S CERTIFICATE

I, the undersigned, H. C.

Barnett of Fremantle in the

colony of Western Australia, a

medical practitioner of the said

colony, and now in actual practice,

hereby certify that I on the

10th day of October at Fremantle

in the said colony personally

examined Theodore Krakouer

of Fremantle and that the said

Theodore Krakouer is a Lunatic

and a proper person to be

taken charge of and detained

under care and treatment, and

that I have focused this opinion

on the following grounds.

1st Facts indicating insanity and

found by myself:

Delusion. Says he hears a voice

operating from his belly giving

him messages from God Almighty

to destroy the world.

2nd Other facts indicating insanity

communicated to me by

other/s:

Has been drinking since he left

the Asylum and is in a state of

delusional excitement.

H. C. Barnett.

his voice

I am ghost-trading. Theodore’s body in the dormitory dreaming of other times, dreaming of his life. A sleeping body, a mound on a mattress under a regulation blanket. There isn’t much body left, only a skinny thing, not so much emaciated as worn down. The volume of the mound is child-size, but the length of his body is still there, five-feet-eight. He is going mad here and that is why he is hiding.

He stands up and moves away from the bed. His walk is like a dance in slow motion: he needs to find a balance and he does it in an elaborate sway, a complex signal system of four limbs. The head moving too, in counter rhythm to his body. A straddling walk.

If, out of respect for the dead and the still living, flesh and blood are banished in this account, and only the paths he took are shown, lines and paths and that is all, how will his journey be shaped? Will he look like a madman or a pioneer, a criminal or a father and grandfather? Ghosts must suffice; disembodied voices that spring from the belly. There are no other mementos or objects carried down, none that I have found, aside from court notices in newspapers and a certificate of lunacy. His crimes always clever and playful; my memorials made of the most precarious materials.

I was charged with a robbery by a diamond merchant and a jeweller. If he

had only been more patient he would have got his money in the normal

style–goods for money. I spent so much time in court, locked up, all for

the crime of swapping his diamond rings for my half-boiled potatoes. They

imprisoned me and my cape, my greatcoats, my hundred weight of sponges. It

was me and a bundle of my belongings, well-cut. Calling me Krakueri, Mister

Charles, the German Jew. Or did I tell them that name? And once I had got

them off my back, in Clerkenwell and Bristol, all over that infernal

island, I was caught again and this time for stealing fine fabrics and

laces. Sent to Australia as punishment for muslin delaine and woollen

shawls. Yes, they are about equal.

My life has proceeded viciously. My mind shaped and locked itself

against these brutalities until now I am a shell of a man without even a

functioning mind. Moments of lucid thought and then I’m gone. There is

nothing neutral about life. I recall my parents in Cracow–this English you

know is not my native tongue–and in their imagination Cracow was a haven,

it was where we would rest at the end of our days. In the shtetl we were

our community, autonomous, complete. And God saw the wickedness of man was

great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart

was only evil continually. And then we had to move, always moving, being

chased from beloved places when foreign powers meddle in how we will live.

In time we go to Berlin. This burden of our race. How I ended my days in

this place when I started there–the burden of our race. My midnight

breathing, the only time I pause and am not hot. An infernal heat. Bright

sun beating down all year. And that fierce ice wind at night through

Fremantle town just to remind you between day and night, cold and hot.

There is nothing in the middle. The bush like Palestine–covered in spring

by beautiful green of grass and herbs and then soon scorched brown and

parched in the heat and drought of summer. But always cold at night. Now

these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Fremantle;

every man and his household came with Theodore.

Abraham, Phoebe, Rachael, Fanny, Sampson, Rudolph, Philip, Raphael,

David.

I look at the walls of limestone in this asylum, I sit and stare through

long days. Think I have captured every detail, every rivulet, the cadence

of a wall. And then after hours, days, months, I suddenly see a new

feature. Seen entirely for the first time. The way that they have been

placed, the logic of the pattern. I look and look at these things, the

things around me, and I do it for my own comfort and to stay in the world.

Because when I can notice a perfectly new thing after habituation then I

know my mind still works.

I WAS EDUCATED IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL OF BERLIN. That is what I told them

in a loud voice in England in gaol when I was asked everything about

myself. They wouldn’t know our words for education and schools. But I

attended the Yeshiva in Berlin, and I studied the Talmud. My father

struggled to support me and I was a devoted student for as long as I could

be. We started early in the morning with prayers and used all of the day

for studying the holy book. We students with the old men gathered around

tables in the synagogue to ward off the melancholy of dusk. My study there

didn’t last long, but those lessons and that dedication to learning I have

kept with me for all of these days since.

When as a boy I first attended classes at the kheyder, there was a

feast. We believed in celebrations. The other students were invited. When I

began to study the Five Books of Moses we also had a feast. So you see this

is all before my bar mitzvah so it is true that we were a celebrating

community. When my brother Solomon was born I was already in the kheyder

and all of the boys came into the house and stood around his little body

and they recited the prayers “Hear, O Israel” and “The Angel Who Redeems

Me.” They came every day and each time they were given a savour of

sweetness until the baby was circumcised.

And then we had another happy ceremony for that day. We also did this

with the baby Abraham in Fremantle. We were able to because there was a

Rabbi visiting from the Eastern colonies, but with all the other sons of

mine it could not be done.

I remember perfectly, even now, where we lived before we began our

infernal exile, the movement from the shtetl to Berlin, where I learnt to

read and write, and alone with my brother across to London and then to my

shame of being caught and locked in Millbank Prison and then Portland

Prison for two years before I set sail to the New World. Ha! This looks

just like another little England full of dreadful men following rules, but

only with more sunshine and bush.

Our faith had such a beautiful shape. The sound of prayer and song, the

holiness of the people mixed with their love. It was together–one and the

same thing. I still recall an event that took place in our shtetl when I

was a small boy. A cantor and his choir visited for the Sabbath. Although

it was at the beginning of my life I have heard nothing as sweet since. We

walked along the river when we left the synagogue and we were a family

together. My mother wore a brooch with tiny pieces of precious glass. I

pressed my child’s face upon her wonderful bosom, always warm and welcoming

of her sons, and the edges of the brooch made an imprint on my face.

“Bring, bring, bring peace, goodness, and blessing. “It has been so much

time passed since I felt like a righteous Jew.

On a summer’s day and we are playing. The winter has been cold and very

long and we are only now thawing out. The children play, stretching our

limbs, laughing excitedly. It is muggy and we may see a storm tonight. The

smell of orange blossom carries through the air. And the aromas of food

from the kitchens of our houses. This is my lost world: I will never see

anything like it again.

The only creature on the earth I never liked is the Matron of this

Asylum. It is clear she was ruined by coming to this town of dogs. She must

have been bitten. Now she is cruel and there are many stupid and foolish

and harmless old men and women, half-wits, and they are very badly hurt by

her. We all of us are still human and that is what they have stopped

thinking of. Humans who are frail of mind or body and sometimes both. This

cesspit is where we have all ended and some of us were pushed. There are

not only Jews and dirty old beggars in here but some of the young men of

the finest families of Perth and soon they too are dirty and whimpering.

Hard done by from parents and then by the jailers in here. Cities are

brutal but colonies can be worse, attracting failures and nasty creatures.

I ask for my daily ration of tobacco and it is given to me. That is all

I get apart from a flogging or being locked in a quiet and damp room. A

dingly dell, a fine muddle I’m in now. This is the end of a long line of

mess. Trickstering help I have given to those who were with me. I am the

Rascal. On the road I hoed. Ha Ha! Friends and those beloved children and

wives in this hellhole of life. I’ve seen the bad, yes, most of it has been

right in here, though, inside me. Right in here and made by me. I have this

reminder in my belly. The women have babies there and I have a voice, my

talkative companion.

I’ve been bad and now I’m mad, sick and tired. The drink has got me

fired right up. Breathed through my pores, done its magic grandly. And this

other thing winding through my nerves. A sickness, a pox. I fly off the

edge of things when I hear a sound not made by me. Don’t talk to me if you

aren’t facing me you’ll give me a fright and I might shock you too. We are

as good as dead in this mad-house–they can not help us now. I shocked some

of those people in Fremantle town drinking. Took them all over the streets.

Made a mess, stood my ground. Now I’m here without Brina a whingeing woman

anyway. Most of the time disagreeable. And the children, only two I will

miss will be the oldest and the youngest, Abe and little David. Abe will

come if he can. The boy can’t. Not allowed.

These things have made me cranky or crazy: being pushed out of home

going to Berlin. Then it all changed. I’m my own creation. I know how many

times I made myself over many times the way they believed that bad voice in

the gaol. The doctor too and the way that it is there telling me all the

time I lied about something and then it happened. Now it has taken me over.

I have a pain across my eyes, a band around my head. Squeezing my head and

squashing my brains. Makes me feel every move could be a dangerous one. It

hurts. I’m tired already of aU the stupid men in this place. The lunatics.

The killers. These black and white birds making their sounds together like

they’re making babies. I never heard that sound before. Here it always in

the mornings. Early, before we are woken and made to dress and get into the

dining slop room for their horrible food. Remind me of the reasons to

continue to live.

Krakow Berlin London Fremantle

In those cold prisons. A well travelled man I am. Aren’t I? Changeable.

My new faces. New names in new places. Books of memories I have of disgust.

My sadness, this can’t hold together all of it. The threads of a bad life.

There were diamond rings and half-boiled potatoes; there were tricks with

petty actions that got me back a little of what I had lost along the way.

When I craved a taste I took it. I had enough of wasting time, of losing

years and years.

The voice in his belly was a noisy one: it forced him into places he hadn’t considered going before. He heard it clear as day; it wasn’t just an abstract thing. It moved up from his guts and it spoke to him of horrors. For a short time he thought he had been returned a king: remembering the kings of Israel, remembering how Ehud slashed the guts of Eglon because he was a bad king. He said I have a message from God for you and he thrust his sword into the king’s belly so that the hilt followed the blade, and the fat closed upon the hilt; he did not withdraw the sword from the belly, and the contents burst out.

This voice: the sound of its imperfections. The carriage of an asthmatic condition turned into sing-song and sometimes bellowing but always this sound coming up, up from the belly and right into the cache of what he knows. The sound of imperfection; always there was an echo, a rasping, gasping for air.

Having the voice so intimately attached made him lonely. A profound solitude this was, a ghostly walk through loss. It was an impediment. One day he decided he must counter this voice and become as loud as he could be. Block out everything with his own formidable sound. That was his control. He had become detached from everything ordinary, even the cadence of a voice in conversation.

Can I get?

out

a master insistent pressing down on me every night

telling me over and over

horrible I never thought such things

before

killing and pulling it all apart

it is the world and he wants me to do it

be his servant do it for him he too meek or

scared

up on top of this hill looking down on free-mantle

on the busy town full of bastards my children.

Well well here we are and you aren’t safe

there’s a lion in here for the ladies

a big steel trap for the men a bucket for the babies

fires will roar through after the disease has mangled anyone

left

I will kill it must be done

blood will flow and then disaster

we are finished

a bad idea this life.

Words are wrapped around the picture. Hundreds of new bodies in the colony, rough-looking men. Everyone here can tell they have been locked up for a long time. These reminders of home, of light-deprivation, of poor diets, although the food supply available to the average colonist is not highly nutritious. When these men were despatched from the ship anchored out at Gage Roads and landed on firm ground after one hundred days at sea, they looked perplexed. Probably just getting used to the light at a harsher pitch than the ocean-borne light because it reflected off limestone and sand.

His display

He went on a rampage through the streets of Fremantle. It wasn’t the first time. Yelling, cursing, offending everyone. Hitting himself in his belly, talking in a low growl. He was a frightening sight and he stunk of all the body smells of alcohol and distress and the exertion of trying to escape distress.

He went mad across the vast span of Fremantle town: hot, soaked through with intoxicants, and suffering from base illnesses. He was part of a scene of anarchy. Something so dangerous about drinking alcohol in such a hot climate, the booze cooking up before it even hits the gut.

People knew him but what could they do? Nobody wanted to get involved, get their hands dirty. The language that came from his mouth was foul. Not all of it English, but you could tell it was obscene. People said he had many fluent languages in his head: German, Polish, Yiddish, even Hebrew. And then English, where the foul words came from. Doesn’t the facility for more than one language mean the subject is clever? No one treated this man as clever or even as human anymore. He was viewed with caution, like the big packhorses he ran in teams down the Williams Road with provisions and goods required for agriculture. This the business that he once ran; his wife and eldest son now managing matters carefully, cooperating with their customers and always delivering on time.

The police arrive to take him to the limestone palace on the hill that he helped to build. There will be a cell waiting for him in that most popular establishment of a lawless place. Godforsaken Fremantle.

1874.

* Court of Quarter Sessions

Terri-ann White works at The University of Western Australia. She has also taught in other university writing programs, and presents writing workshops in the community regularly. Her stories and other writing have been published widely; a collection entitled Night and Day was released by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 1994. Over the past decade she has been a passionate collaborator with other artists: dancers, visual artists, musicians. For twelve years she was an independent bookseller, as owner and manager of the Arcane Bookshop in Perth. Her second book, Finding Theodore and Brina, a family saga set in the most isolated city in the world, was released by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in August 2001. “A Voice in the Belly” is an excerpt from this novel.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Fairleigh Dickinson University

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group