From “Mother Tongue”


My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to you who reads it here for the first time.

I am the secret and the one who whispers the secret into your ear.

I am the crime and the narrator-sleuth.

I came upon the facts of my existence as one who returns to her home in the midst of a burglary: here is the shattered glass, the rifled drawers, the thief with the booty still cradled in her guilty arms.

When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own. This was May 7, 1968, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Paris, ten thousand students rioted in the streets. Martin Luther King had been dead for a month, and Robert Kennedy’s killer struck in June. The war in Vietnam was at its peak. In the midst of these larger con- vulsions, a smaller one — deadly as napalm, precise as an assassin’s bullet — in the form of a nurse who kidnapped a child and vanished from sight. I was a healthy infant, with a head of dark hair and an iodine stain shaped like a butterfly in the center of my brow. During the futile search for me and my abductor, that marking would become famous for a while, the butterfly baby featured on news reports and front pages and missing children flyers in post offices and com- munity centers and supermarkets all over America. By the time the authorities abandoned their hunt, the iodine stain had faded away, my most distinguishing characteristic no longer there to identify me. And as often happens to babies born with a full head of hair, that too was gone. I looked so little like the photo snapped of me in the hours following my birth that Ruth herself could begin to believe that I was a different infant entirely, not the one she’d taken from a mother in Room 32B who slept through the deed in sedated post-partum oblivion.

At the end of her shift, Ruth lifted me from my crib in the new- born nursery, settled me into a sling she wore beneath her raincoat, and walked out undetected into the balmy Pittsburgh dusk. Smoke from the steel mills still turned the air rancid then, and yielded sunsets of exquisite and memorable radiance. If I had not been stolen away, if I had been able to witness again and again the evening sky of my birthplace, I would have learned early the lesson I am struggling now to accept: beauty resides in blight, and blight in beauty — each holds the other like a seed in its hand.

We traveled by taxi to the airport. Ruth retrieved the suitcase and diaper bag from the locker room where she’d stowed them the day before. In the Ladies Rest Room, she fed me a bottle, changed me, dressed me in a flowered fleece gown and matching knit cap large enough to pull down over the stain she’d already doctored with pancake make-up, the kind models use to achieve the look of false perfection.

Ruth herself exchanged her nurse’s uniform for a gray pleated skirt, a pink blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and a gray cardigan — a uniform of sorts of the conventional woman, though of course she was anything but. Did she touch up her own make-up, there in the mirror over the sink, in view of other passengers about to leave Pittsburgh for unknown parts? Did somebody notice how pretty Ruth was — her shiny short black hair, her solemn green eyes, her mouth upturned slightly in what always seemed like a subtle smile even when she was sad or angry or embarking on a terrible crime? Did somebody notice, and smile back into the mirror, one reflection acknowledging another, reversal greeting reversal, a little wink as if to say: Nothing is as it seems?

In the suitcase, a passport bearing her new identity: Eve Gilbert, her late father’s first name taken as her last, and Eve a promise of paradise, of course, new beginnings, and signifying darkness, too, a shadowland where one can hide, hide out, hide away and from, vanish from Time itself.

And a false birth certificate, which recorded my fabricated father whom she called Philip. Her own alias. The one she invented for me: Nella, which I now see resembles null, the condition of non-existence. And the notary’s raised stamp, which even a blind person could verify by touch, nothing but a fraud.





Nella Gilbert: to learn that this was not my name was as much a shock to me as the one I would have suffered if I had discovered that the body I inhabit was not my own, my reflection in the mirror nothing but a sham, a canny deceit, an optical illusion I had mis- taken for the reliable truth.

In the airport, I slept peacefully against my kidnapper’s heart. Soon we would board a flight to Los Angeles, transferring there to Honolulu, then on to Sydney, my abduction carried out and com- pleted in thirty-six fateful hours.

And if her confession, forty years later, left me knowing less than before she admitted her deed, if questions rattled my sleep like spilled coins from a purloined purse, what could I do but investigate further?

Beyond the meagre field of facts, I moved on to other kinds of evidence: memory’s stuttering tongue, imagination’s hieroglyphs. In my thickening file, a record of dreams detailed as fingerprints, omens complex as DNA, lies in which the truth rests furled like a snail in its decoy of armoring shell.

In other words, I followed every lead.

This is my account of that investigation. Some might call this document a fiction, and to you I say: Yes, if by fiction you mean the truth a fevered soul yields up out of its alchemical heat.

We are meant to burn.

We are meant to tremble, quake, call out from our sweat-drenched beds in the singular voice that emerges, like a new language, from our suffering sleep.

My refugee students have been trying to teach me this for decades. They’ve come to instruct me from all over the world, migrants whose mother-tongues seem to have spoiled in their mouths, fluency turned into sour garble, sweet familiar speech now bitter in an English- speaking land. When I learned the secret of my birth, I might as well have been flung onto a smuggler’s fishing boat for a night journey over foreign seas. I might as well have sold all my possessions for a one-way ticket on a cut-rate airline, destination away, elsewhere, any- where, far.

I am setting this down in September 2013. I am forty-five years old. I make my living teaching refugees how to speak and write English. In the process, I hope I help them reclaim the voice they often lose when they leave their native language behind, in the choices they make to save their lives and the lives of their families. I myself write stories, inspired often by the courage of my students to leave a record, to bear witness, to remember and imagine. I have published many, in literary magazines, here and in New Zealand, and gathered them together in books via a good small Australian press. I have set aside a novel-in-progress for this narrative instead. My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to anyone who reads it here for the first time.

Ruth/Eve planned her crime for months.

She did not conceive of it as a crime.

With the authority of prophecy, of divine revelation, a dream arrived one night and never left. She surrendered her life to it. She ceded to it the power she gave to the orders doctors at the hospital inscribed on the charts of her newborn patients. A nurse is trained in obedience. The dream commanded her to choose an infant in her charge and create a life with it as if the bond between them were the natural one of birth. Though not religious, the woman I would come to believe was my mother was obedient, and the voice of the dream became the oracle on whose word the dreamer founded her new life’s faith.


Or a devious alibi not a soul could contradict.

Both explanations compel me. I see their logic. When I consider madness as her motive — my entire identity based on a slow chemical leak in Ruth Miller’s brain, or a sudden electrical storm that one night erased forever the map of reason from that tissued labyrinth— then I can grieve for her as well as myself and the family from whom I was taken. We can all rest together in the ruins of Ruth Miller’s delusion, kindred refugees fleeing the same disaster. But what if she invented the story of the dream solely to shield herself from judgment? Perhaps she produced that lie as a container for the others, a nest in which all her fabrications seemed to have hatched organically and without blame. Perhaps no dream at all arrived as the onset of an obsession which snatched her reason from her exactly as she had lifted me from that hospital bassinet.

Instead, she may have been sane and selfish, calculating, a woman who wanted a child and took one from someone else. Shoplifted me, as it were, and made up a cover story in case she were ever confronted with her crime.

Wouldn’t I have to cast her out?

For a time, I did. For a year. After her death, and the discovery of her letter of confession to me, I hardened and numbed. Clenched

heart, fisted soul, body rigid, and the mind furled shut. Better to soften to the pain, I have learned, than to die in such contraction. Rigor mortis before the fact. What seems to be a bed of nails is just the earth, in the end. Every person’s pallet, not just mine. The same breath breathes us all.

As the plane traveled through each time zone, Ruth/Eve jettisoned more of her past, the life she had lived as Ruth Miller falling away like baggage released into the atmosphere. As if she were on a jet that could somehow yield up that cargo without a loss of pressure that would down the flight itself. But at such an altitude, the air is so cold that anything entering it would immediately freeze, every blouse and shoe, wool jacket, lace slip, every pair of nylon stockings, all her undergarments, each flannel nightgown, every dress and hat and skirt perfectly preserved in their space-borne containers. That is how I imagine her memories: filled suitcases orbiting the planet, a history neither destroyed nor claimed. Although she must have believed that she was rushing toward a new life in Australia, it actually was the past toward which she was bound, that jettisoned baggage waiting, like so many asteroids, to plummet at last straight through the roof of her house.

We arrived in a night storm. It was as if the plane were landing underwater, that was how dense the downpour was. Below us, Sydney’s lights were starfish, electric eels, schools of iridescent minnows. The landing wheels dropped like rafts to hold us steady on the uprushing sea. Then, the seeming water turned to tarmac as the wheels made their magic contact. Magic because that was Eve Gilbert’s language now, the story into which she had descended, a fairy-tale strange as flying animals and wizard wands and beauties — a woman and an infant — awakened to themselves in a foreign land. That she had entered the trance rather than escaped it did not reveal itself to Eve for decades. It was impending death that woke her to her life at last, the horror of her act finally clear to her, the wish to make things right, as she wrote me in her letter of confession, profound and impossible.

Can you piece together a shattered glass?

Zen masters teach: This glass is already broken.

I’ll choose that hard solace over blame and bitter remorse.

Our lives are already broken, birth a shower of shards beyond the gestures of ordinary repair. Give up the glue of habit; it won’t hold. To be wholly broken: that’s Eve’s bequest to me.

Broken wholly.

Holy broken.

Broken whole.

Words shift shape, in kaleidoscopic flux. How not a life’s story, then, that house of words which is our shelter and our storm?

JOYCE KORNBLATT lives and writes in the Blue Mountains. An American-born novelist who moved to Australia in 2003, she is the author of [five] well-reviewed novels: Nothing to Do with Love, Breaking Bread, White Water [,] The Reason for Wings [and Mother Tongue] – which have been published in the U. S., England, France, Denmark and Germany. Her short stories, essays and book reviews have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Georgia Review, Iowa Review and The Sydney Morning Herald.

For 20 years, she was a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Maryland in the U.S. In Australia she has taught and supervised post-graduate writing students, been a tutor at Varuna Writers House, and mentored a number of award-winning Australian writers. For many years, she has offered writing retreats and year-long private workshops in Sydney. Joyce Kornblatt lives in the Blue Mountains, Australia, near Sydney, with her husband, Christopher Ash.

[Mother Tongue was published in Australia in 2020 and is forthcoming in September from Publerati in the US/CANADA.]