Issue No. 111
A singular piece of contemporary fiction, Maria Takolander’s stunning Chekhov-inspired story, “Three Sisters” is the perfect introduction to an incredible new international writer.
Taken from Takolander’s sensational debut collection, The Double (Text, 2013), and published for the first time in the USA in issue four of Stonecutter, “Three Sisters” brings us into the decaying, swampy environs of an unnamed rural Australian roadhouse. There reside immigrant sisters Oksana, Svetlana, and Tatiana, who silently yet steadily eke out their days amidst the marshlands. The tedium of their daily lives is barely interrupted by the characters who invade their surroundings—an obese, clownish truck driver, and an old, fragile, foreigner; Lear and his fool.
Drawing on Chekhov’s fire-ravaged and eventually abandoned town, the world of Takolander’s story has also been transformed by some unknown force—by nature or economic failure, diaspora or disinterest. We are never told exactly what. Nonetheless, we fully enter it, navigated by an omniscient voice—something of a tour guide to this fable-like realm—who, in sweeping panoramas, commands that we “look” and “see” everything, lest it dissolve or remain forever invisible. And so, we visit the town’s decaying museum and its abandoned playground, consider its sprawling mangroves and roving gangs of mosquitoes, and bear witness to an otherwise forgotten place.
When we finally cross the threshold of the roadhouse and meet the sisters, they are quite unlike Chekhov’s vocal women. Takolander’s creations are taciturn, mythic creatures; weathered statues amidst total ruin. And though the sisters are “spoken for” by the story’s narrator, and “spoken at” by the two male figures in the tale, they are still formidable presences—business people, the last vestiges of an area that nature and poverty have otherwise vanquished.
Takolander’s stories astonish. They show ordinary lives, the marginalized, our sisters, whose histories have been forgotten or remain untold: the men with their bloody steaks, the phantom on the swing, the shadows of birds with their pickaxe heads. To see and feel and recognize these characters and their silences, to be brought into a strange, nameless place and, having peered at the world from both within and beyond the frame, to come away from it with knowledge and understanding—this is the remarkable gift that a Takolander story gives to us.
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Stonecutter
Support Recommended Reading
Subscribe to Stonecutter
by Maria Takolander
Recommended by Stonecutter
Let us take a look at this place. Marshlands. All the way to the horizon. The land drained, but nevertheless sinking. Sinking into nothing, nothing but itself. Frogs volleying noise in the grass, unseen. The hazy movement of mosquitoes low to the ground. On a lush blade of green a sleek cricket, blacker than night and—look closely—its antennae twitching. Just think: there must be more of those creatures, thousands, perhaps millions, clinging to the swamp grass as far as your eye can see.
Running through it all is the highway: black tarmac dumped on a man-made ridge. Power poles no longer vertical. Wires sagging. And a tarmac bridge, built without so much as a timber railing. Can you see the creek underneath? A seam of brown water between banks of mud. The mud pockmarked with crab holes and mangrove-ridden.
There is firmer land somewhere. Land where cattle stamp the soil with cloven hooves. Where horse hair is torn against barbed fences. Where colossal windmills slice the air. But that is not here.
Now, the terror of a road train—listen! Tearing at the asphalt, shaking its steel hinges, like a caged animal, angry only at itself. See how it passes in a tumult of wind. Even the murky water of the creek shudders. Then the swamp grass settles. The frogs resume their hollow sound-making. The cricket has gone.
Look around in the stillness abandoned by the truck’s passing. There is a cluster of weatherboard houses. Crouched past the bridge, in the clearing by the muddy creek. See the white one-room bungalow? With the peeling paint and the skeletons of fish hanging from the porch like a witchdoctor’s bunting? That is a museum.
On the walls inside you will find a collection of colorless photographs. Aerial surveys. A fishing boat in a vein of water, closed in by mangroves. A group of mustachioed men, holding onto the rails of a wooden jetty. Eyeing the camera as if it was an enemy. There is a creature from prehistory, all tendrils and feathery gills, hauled up on a chain next to them. And look: another picture. On the muddy bank, a sorry group of men, almost naked, forlorn as the forgotten.
So much for the museum. Do you see, on the other side of the highway, the white clapboard building? It is the roadhouse. The only one for miles around. There is the concrete driveway with oil stains, and the fuel pump, shaped like a teapot, in front. And out to the side, almost lost to the mangroves crawling up from the creek bed, the remnants of a playground. A swing, its tyre seat hanging low to the ground, where the mangroves, worming unseen, have pushed their stems through the mud.
Do you see the derelict cottage out back? Three sisters live there. Two of them run the roadhouse. Svetlana, the middle sister, waits tables and does the cooking. Oksana, the youngest, works the register and helps with the dishes. The sisters are pale-haired and towering. They wear white blouses, and black pants usually a little too short against their ankles. They keep themselves busy. When the place is empty of custom, Svetlana and Oksana clean the fans and filters above the vats of oil in the kitchen. Scrape the ice from the freezer room walls. Do the book-keeping on one of the diner tables.