Into the woods

Some kind of pain, Jolene says as they hand her a baby still bloody and wet. Then, Perfect. A bit of blood marks Baby’s chin, or is it a beauty spot? Even that is perfect. Must be the hormones, Jolene thinks; she hasn’t felt this high since high school – cocaine in a closet in Pasadena with her best friend, Tulah.

I am a mom, she says aloud and wonders if her baby will call her Mum. She counts: ten miniature fingers, ten tiny toes. She gazes: smooth translucent skin, white-blond hair, soft like the girls in fairytales. Then the baby – Georgette – closes her blue eyes, opens a toothless mouth and screams until a nurse instructs Jolene to stuff a red nipple between tiny lips. Silence.

Jolene spends a restless night lying next to the new life; she rises to feed and change her in a blissful daze. The next day doctors puff air into Georgette’s ears and declare a sensorineural hearing loss of more than 85 decibels. Meaning? Jolene whispers. And then, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. She takes the sleeping baby from the nurse, stares at doll’s ears. Was it the three glasses of wine she had on her birthday? The coffee? The virus in the second trimester? Ecstasy she did at 22, before Georgette was even a notion?

The doctor tells her about hearing aids and cochlear implants, speech therapists, support groups, early intervention.

Right. And I’ll have to learn sign language.

He looks up, bushy eyebrows scrunched low. They don’t really do that anymore. He goes, leaving the memory of a white coat and black eyebrows. Jolene feels tired, emptied out. She looks down at her broken baby, takes a deep breath. It’s OK, she says in a soothing tone. And then she remembers the baby can’t hear.

Nurses bark in the hallway. The mother on the other side of the curtain sings to her baby. Jolene strokes Georgette’s hair. She wants out – out from under stiff hospital sheets, out from the midwife’s prodding fingers, out of the glare of fluorescent lights that turn Georgette’s skin a greenish yellow.

A nurse takes her blood pressure. And shall we be expecting a father?

She considers lying, shakes her head. He’s gone – fucked off back to America. They came to Sydney three years ago for his job and he got fired, she got pregnant; he went home, she couldn’t refuse the free health care.

Women from the office visit the hospital. They coo and smile their lipstick smiles and present a plush yellow duck that quacks when you squeeze it. When told the baby can’t hear, the women flinch as if deafness was visible, an affliction.

Is it permanent?

Are they sure?

Isn’t there something they can do?

Jolene brings Georgette home to a pink bassinet in her unit in Waterfall. Mary from next door pops over and holds the baby. Sit, Mary says and Jolene perches gingerly on the edge of the sofa. Everything still hurts.

Mary rocks the baby with a natural grace that makes Jolene wonder why she doesn’t have kids herself.

Well, Mary says with her Scottish accent, Least you don’t have to worry about blasting Bob Marley all hours.

Jolene laughs for the first time since the Demoral wore off.

Lie back, Mary says, placing a sleeping baby on Jolene’s chest. The baby rises and falls with the breath of her mother and Jolene pretends for a moment that everything’s OK.

A year later and Georgette’s filling up Jolene’s lap in the waiting room of the ENT. Jolene reads a Disney version of Hansel and Gretel, shouts it into her left hearing aid – does she hear? They dropped crumbs along the path into the woods so they could find their way home. Georgette fidgets, rips a page. Jolene closes the book, kisses the top of her baby’s blond head. She still falls asleep at night with the baby on her chest, the feel of her warm weight rising and falling. Jolene has never known such tenderness.

When it’s finally their turn, the doctor shows Jolene a coloured illustration that takes up the page, a cross-section with an ear on one side connected to those familiar squiggles to the brain.

This is a picture of the inner ear, the doctor says.

No, I thought it was my right big toe.

Georgette bangs a chair.

I’d appreciate your focus, Mum, the doctor says. We’ll drill through the skull.

Jolene closes her eyes. Does he even know her name? She looks at him looking at his watch. In her dreams the drill is a roadworks jackhammer and the first doctor’s there, the one with the bushy eyebrows.

Mum leaves the doctor’s office quiet and composed, pushing a sleeping Georgette. She enters a disabled toilet, lifts the seat and throws up. Then she puts the seat down, flushes, sits and stares at Georgette. The baby looks angelic. She doesn’t look deaf. But she will with the clunky ear piece and circular transmitter on the side of her head. Jolene wonders what mean things the other children will say – cruel taunts that only groups of girls can think up.

Crying brings relief and Jolene might even feel good if the bathroom didn’t smell like puke and used tampons, if she had a glass of wine.

Three and implanted and talking, Georgette runs naked round the table, doll in hand, yelling, Mummy have boobies! Georgette no have boobies!

Jolene stuffs a bite of chicken into the moving target. There are charts on the walls, the Ling test is posted on the fridge, the calendar is full of appointments. Jolene sits on her hands so she won’t point or use gestures that may impede Georgette’s speech development.

She’s sick of waiting rooms with their worn-out toys and missing puzzle pieces; she’s tired of speech therapy sessions with the pretty young woman singing in a high pitched voice every five minutes and throughout the hour, Listening, listening now! Listening! But all this is working; Georgette’s talking. One day her daughter will look back and thank her.

More chicken? She holds a forkful.

Georgette takes it. Fork, she says.

Fork, yes! Jolene replies as she’s been instructed to reply: And what do we use a fork for?

The toddler looks up at her mother, down at the fork. She stabs the doll and growls.

Jolene picks her daughter up from school. They walk home side by side.

How was your day?


What did you do?


Jolene tries to hold her hand, but Georgette shakes it off.

Georgette stops at a tree in full bloom and they look up at purple flowers against a blue sky. Jacaranda, Georgette says. A little unclear, but better than the other hearing impaired kid at school.

Next week there will be a carpet of purple on the ground, a mirror to the flowers still left on the branches. The week after, they’ll all be dead. Jolene and her daughter walk on.

By the time she’s nine, Georgette puts her own cochlear in and changes the batteries herself. Her mum says it’s special but Georgette knows it’s not. She hasn’t heard exactly what the other kids say, but she’s read their faces and stopped asking, What did you say? Because eventually people stop telling you.

Some days, she turns it off and watches the teacher’s lips move, imagines her saying, Georgette, you’re too clever for all this. We’ve arranged to send you to America, back to your father, America, where the best and brightest live in huge mansions with swimming pools. And then the teacher isn’t moving her lips; she’s waving her arms, motioning for Georgette to switch on, switch back to the humid Australian classroom where the other kids stare. Georgette feels hot in the face. She looks down at a blank page. Never mind. The itinerant teacher will come soon and give her all the answers.

What people don’t get is that just because she can talk, doesn’t mean she can hear. She has 22 electrodes trying to make up for 30,000 hair follicles and if it’s quiet, if she can see the person’s lips, Georgette can usually make out what they’re saying, but it’s exhausting. And school is anything but quiet. Mostly her world is full of loud white noise. She hangs out for the end of the day, when she can switch off and lie in silence with Harry Potter.

That night Georgette dreams she’s in the middle of a circle and all around her people are angry and shouting; she tries to hear what they’re saying, but they interrupt each other, and she can’t move her eyes quick enough from one set of lips to the next. Georgette wakes and goes to the kitchen. Her mother’s back is turned at the sink. Georgette thinks of telling her mum about the dream, but then she’d have to put her cochlear back in. So she stands still and watches her mother do dishes. Georgette sees a wine glass hit the tap – her mother still calls it a faucet – and shatter silently in the sink. She sneaks back to bed and lies in the dark, remembering when she was little and wanted to be just like her mum: jeans and high heels, earrings that swing. She remembers thinking her mother was so clever, just because she could hear.

At thirteen, school’s all noise. Georgette slips out at lunch, walks home to an empty house. She grabs her bike and crosses the street to the Royal National Park. She’s riding, wind blowing her blond hair back so you can see the transmitting coil on her head, the speech processor over her ear, the mould inside. She wants to take it off, but she’s not allowed to ride a bike without her cochlear, and she’s breaking enough rules for one day. The park’s empty and the heaviness she feels in school, the weight of what rests on her ear and in her skull, the strain of trying to hear lifts as she coasts downhill into the forest. At first there’s a bike path under the gums, where she’s been before with her Mum on sunny days in winter. When the path ends, something compels her to get off her bike and walk into the bush. The woods, she thinks. But neither word is right.

She hears a kookaburra in a tree, not as most people hear it – her cochlear picks up forty of four hundred frequencies – but she hears it all the same. Georgette keeps going, further from her bike, from the path. The bush thickens. She thinks of turning back, and then she sees it: a clearing in the wood, a group of children laughing, not talking.

Georgette rubs her eyes. Kids moving their hands stand in a circle. Georgette freezes, hoping they won’t see her, then hoping they will. A boy points in her direction and Georgette feels her face go hot. He gestures for her to come forward.

Georgette opens her mouth. The kids smile, laugh, pull her into the circle, hands on her shoulders. She feels a strange sensation go through her body. They’re moving their hands so fast, eyes wide and then narrow. She’s seen this before on a bus, in a train station; she’s watched it on YouTube. She has no idea what they’re saying.

The boy’s built like a rugby player, tall, with brown eyes. He’s good-looking; he knows it. He approaches Georgette, makes a circular clapping motion, smiles big. Happy, she thinks and copies him. She giggles, nervous. He nods, then frowns, puts a hand under his chin, moves it forward. Sad. He places his hands on hers, showing her how to make the signs; her skin tingles with his touch. He puts a hand to the device on her head, gently removes the magnet and then the ear mould, lifts off the earpiece so her world is quiet like theirs. She’s frightened; and then she’s not.

Georgette feels a drop of rain, remembers her Mum, dinner, home. She stands abruptly, points in the direction from which she came. The boy takes both her hands in his and Georgette lingers. He takes a pen and writes his number on the skin of her hand. Then he looks her in the eyes, points to her beauty spot and to his chin where the spot would be on him. He shows the others – they point to their chins and then to her, they nod. She doesn’t understand, not yet.

Walking back to the bike, cochlear in her pocket, she sees giant ferns bouncing in the rain, notices the extreme green of a bed of moss. A bird flits by. All the world is quiet, the way it is in the bath or in the morning, when she feels her mother shake her awake.

Georgette doesn’t put her cochlear back on for dinner. She sees her mother’s pleading lips and she can read a bit of what they’re saying, but she doesn’t feel like hearing. Her mother doesn’t know what the world sounds like to Georgette. It sounds like the skin of her knee feels on the road when she comes off her bike. Georgette takes a bite of peas, remembers the press of the pen on her hand, though she’s washed away the ink. Her mum smiles; Georgette feels a sudden anger rise inside. She can’t eat. Georgette stands, goes to her room, texts the boy, Remember me?

She waits.

When the phone vibrates, she jumps. What’s your name?

Georgia, she replies.


That night she falls asleep with the phone on her chest and her hands in the air, trying to remember the signs.

Jolene stands at the kitchen sink doing dishes, late for the M-HICS meeting. Mothers of Hearing Impaired Children. These days, her daughter won’t look her in the eyes. Jolene can’t remember when it got this bad, just that it’s been bad a long time. Glued to her iPhone, messaging someone on the other side of the world, or the other side of the room, she bears no relation to the fat toddler that threw her arms around her mother’s neck and told her she loved her to the North Pole and back. She’s even changed her name: Georgia, of all things. That redneck state. Georgia texted this new information to her mother last month because she no longer speaks.

Jolene reaches for a frying pan that’s been soaking. She should go to the meeting. The other mothers are always so sympathetic, especially when it comes to teenagers. She could tell them how Georgette’s become proud of her disability. Everyone’s proud these days – gay and proud! Transgendered and proud! Indigenous and proud! And that’s fine, really it’s fine, but deaf and proud? Jolene scrubs at burnt egg.

She finishes the dishes, checks the mirror for any food in her teeth, writes a note to Georgia that she’s going to M-HICS and puts it in front of her daughter’s phone. Georgia takes the paper and gives her mother a half-wave without looking up. Jolene steps into the hall, pauses. She knocks at Mary’s door instead.

In you get.

Georgette – Georgia. Fuck. Jolene closes her eyes and tries not to cry.

In you come, Mary says and Jolene lets herself be pulled passed the threshold.

He came over today, John, and, I mean, besides the fact that my teenage daughter can get a boyfriend and I can’t …

Is that what you want?

I want to be normal. They were signing and I know they were talking about me. I could feel it.

Teenage girls talk about their mums. Beer?

Tea. Mint tea, please.

Don’t they drink in America? You could learn to sign.

She should’ve gone to the meeting. Mary, you don’t get it. All those appointments, all the waiting rooms with toys that smelled like vomit and books with half the pages missing, all that fucking speech therapy? It would negate everything.

Would it?

She wants to go to a deaf school. Do you know the rates of literacy among the deaf?

Georgia can read.

I know she can read. I taught her to read. When did she get this angry at her own daughter? Jolene takes a deep breath, sinks to the floor.

Mary joins her on the blue carpet. She holds Jolene’s face with one hand, and draws a finger slowly down the centre of her forehead, her nose, her mouth, stops at her chin. You’re a good mum, she says. Let’s not talk.

At fifteen Georgia comes home with purple hair and black nails. They sit at the dinner table. Some things are still normal: dinner at 6:30, Modern Family on the TV at 7. Jolene stares. She hates the hair, loves that distant creature on the other side of the table. Jolene reaches out and places a hand on top of her daughter’s, and, to her surprise, her daughter doesn’t pull away. Georgia looks her in the eyes, and then out the window at a streaky April sunset. She points.

Jolene doesn’t turn to see pink clouds. She stares at Georgia, clings to her hand, which is soft, still a child’s. Jolene would like to hold her hand all evening, all night and all of the next day; she would like to lift her teenage girl and put her on her lap and tuck her head –purple hair and all – under her chin, and rock her back and forth. Georgia pulls away, writes on a bit of paper, I’m moving out.

Jolene blinks.

John’s family – they’re all deaf, she writes. I feel at home there.

Jolene tells herself not to panic. You’re not deaf, she hears herself say, but even as she says the words she knows she’s wrong. Do you know how small the Deaf community is?

That’s my decision, Georgia scrawls and then stands.

What happens next is a haze for Jolene. Georgia puts on a bulky backpack, hugs her mother and walks out the door. Jolene feels her stomach leap. She yells her child’s name. But Georgia doesn’t turn.

Sarah Klenbort

Sarah Klenbort lives in Sydney with her Welsh husband and two daughters. She teaches literature at the University of Western Sydney. Sarah has (finally) finished her first novel and is looking for a publisher.

More by Sarah Klenbort ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays