Well, nobody did request this story, but I thought I’d type it out anyway – the title is a little off-putting, but if you find this at all striking, then you’ll probably want to read more of Janet Frame’s work. I must confess its brevity appeals as much as its other qualities, when it comes to typing it out…
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 bare-foot 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, we 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.