Ankere (Emu) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye
I glanced at the clock – five minutes to go before this session ended. It was the same evaluation routine every month – same doctor, same sterile vanilla room, same playing cards.
Dr. H turned over the card. I wondered if Dr. H ever tired of the responses.
“Butterfly,” I said. Most people would recognize this inkblot card as the first in the Rorschach test. Butterfly was always a safe answer.
Dr. H looked at me for a moment. Perhaps I’d answered too quickly. I wondered if I should vary my answer next month. I made a mental note for later consideration. Dr. H made a note under the other scribbles on this session’s yellow pad.
My eyes widened at the next card. I glanced up. Dr. H watched closely.
“That’s not a Rorschach card,” I said, stating the obvious. What else was safe to say?
“No,” Dr. H said.
I remained silent. I knew this card. It was a painting by an Australian aboriginal artist, full of lines and dots on a tangerine desert. I recognized the artist as Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The yam lines made her art distinctive from all others.
Was this a prompt to talk about my childhood in Australia? What did Dr. H know about my history as a child? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t an amateur of these games. I waited knowing that Dr. H would fill the silence and say something further.
Dr. H sighed, resigned to giving in since I had never done so in past sessions. “I thought it would be helpful to get your response on something different. Mix things up a bit.”
“No. No. NO. NO,” a voice in my head screamed. “That’s not fair. We’re not prepared.”
I felt the acidic juices in my stomach start to foam. Panic was building and I knew the suffocation of it would begin if I didn’t calm myself. An unexpected turn of events but I could deal with this. I took a couple of deep breaths through my nose so Dr. H would not see the turmoil inside my head and body. I doubted the movement of my nostrils would give me away.
“It’s a trick. A way to get you to reveal something about us,” another voice accused.
Dr. H was watching and I couldn’t glance at the clock without possibly revealing my discomfort. A swirl of mist seemed to cloud my eyes and I was drawn back into a memory. Or at least what I thought was a memory. The story had been told so many times I no longer knew what was my memory and what was simply part of the story become legend. I hadn’t thought about that night in years.
It had been a warm evening. I’d been put to bed early since I was only 6 years old. A remote part of Australia. My parents wanted to experience the wilds of the country. I remember waking to a bird’s call. It drew me – that much I remember. My parents must have thought I was safely asleep for the night and had left me unattended. Getting up from the bed, I wandered outside. The door had been left open. Cool breezes of the night air drifted in and out as if visiting for a spell. I have no memory of the direction I headed – only of the bird’s call, beckoning me. A lovely trilling that I’ve never heard again.
Step by step I moved deeper into the outback until the bird’s song disappeared. I sat down to wait. Then I began to cry. Time passed. I must have fallen asleep, still weeping, growing cold as the night deepened. What I remember next is the warmth that banished the cold and the gentleness of the touch. A different sound, rhythmic and soothing gently rocked me – a foreign lullaby. I slept.
The warmth of that presence stayed with me during the night. At dawn’s breaking, the warmth disappeared and I whimpered at the loss. I cried more loudly as I was placed on the wood porch. Quiet then frantic footsteps going and coming are my recollection. Then my mother’s relieved cry that I had been found. Safe, I lay at the door of our cabin.
Back in the present, I glanced up. Dr. H waited patiently. I checked the clock. One minute to go.
I stared at the picture. What could I say? A dog with motorcycle goggles stared out at me. That would never do as an answer. A race horse with goggles maybe but again, that was a risk I was not comfortable making on my own. An ant farm with tracks might be acceptable. Still…
“You can’t know if that will help you,” a voice said.
“Dr. H will read into your answer. Careful,” another voice warned.
“Cooperating will help you,” another voice argued.
“Get up and dance. Show Dr. H something new,” a voice said.
“Tell Dr. H about the painting,” another whispered.
I struggled to quiet the voices while maintaining a nonchalant pose. It would not do to show my anxiety.
“It’s an Australian artist’s painting,” I said.
Surprise showed on Dr. H’s face. “How do you know?”
“My family spent some time in country when I was little.”
“That’s very interesting,” Dr. H said. “What do you see in the painting?”
“The yam rows she is known for,” I said.
The timer rang. Dr. H seemed conflicted, wanting to continue but knowing there was another to follow me. Shoulders relaxed. “That’s it for today. We’ll talk about your time in Australia next month.”
I smiled. “Of course,” I said.
I would have time to consult the voices and decide on what was safe to relate. Time to consider what I could say that would help me escape this prison of an asylum.
This story was submitted as part of the Fralin Museum’s Writer’s Eye annual contest. I didn’t place in the contest but I liked the exercise and the story that came out of the process. The museum picks a number of art works and then the writer can pick which one he/she wants to write a story around.
If this has been your story using this picture – what would you have written?
What do you see in the story?
Also, in this instance since the art was subject to interpretation, I left out any use of an identifier as to the patient and the doctor. I also used the dream which left the reader with interpreting what really happened. Did these devices work? Have you used them before?
If you choose to write a story – the length maximum was 1,000 words. I’d love to read it if you choose to write one.