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288 pages, Kindle Edition
First published January 31, 2018
... we've lost our way and there's no-one to ask for directions
Mijn eigen broer Arjen was twaalf toen hij verongelukte. Ik was net drie en ik begreep niet hoe hij ineens zomaar weg was. Alles werd meteen anders. Er werd amper over zijn dood gepraat en mijn ouders haalden onmiddellijk de kerstboom weg. Kinderen snappen dat niet; zodra je zo’n boom verwijdert, wordt het nóg nadrukkelijker dat er iets ergs aan de hand is.
My own brother Arjen was twelve when he died in an accident. I was just three years old and I didn't understand how he suddenly disappeared. Everything immediately changed. There was hardly any mention of his death and my parents immediately removed the Christmas tree. Children don't understand that; as soon as you remove such a tree, it becomes even more emphatic that something bad is going on.
I nod and think about the teacher who said I’d go far with my empathy and boundless imagination, but in time I’d have to find words for it because otherwise everything and everybody stays inside you. And one day, just like the black stockings which my classmates sometimes tease me about wearing because we’re Reformists – even though I never wear black stockings – I will crumple in on myself until I can only see darkness, eternal darkness.
“Matthies’s face was as pale as fennel”
“There weren’t any words to take the edge off fear, the way the blades of the combine decapitated the rapeseed plants to keep only the bit you can use.”
It’s still a mystery how our parents found each other. The thing is, Dad’s hopeless at looking. When he’s lost something it’s usually in his pocket, and when he goes to do the shopping he always comes back with something different than what was on the list: Mum’s the wrong kind of yoghurt, but one he was happy enough with and vice versa. They’ve never told us about how they met – Mum never thinks it a good time. There are rarely any good times here, and if we have them we only realize afterwards. My suspicion is that it was exactly like with the cows, that one day Granny and Grandpa opened my mum’s bedroom door and put Dad in with her like a bull. After that they shut the door and hey presto: there we were. From that day on, Dad called her ‘wife’ and Mum called him ‘husband’. On good days ‘little man’ and ‘little woman’, which I found strange, as though they were worried they’d forget each other’s sex, or that they belonged to each other.
When we arrived at the mangels, some of them were rotten. The mushy white pulp that looked like pus stuck to my fingers when I picked them up.
The book is growing on me like the mould on the rancid dead hamster festering in my brother’s bed, mould that reminds me of the patches my mother scrapes off our buns in turn uncovering the currants that remind me of sores on the pestilential back of our sow. As my father quotes from Leviticus “a persistent defiling mould; the novel is unclean”
I’ve got so many words but it’s as if fewer and fewer come out of me, while the biblical vocabulary in my head is pretty much bursting at the seams.
Suddenly I realize what’s going on. Everything from the recent past falls into place, all the times we were fragile, and I say, ‘This is another of the plagues from Exodus, it must be. Only they’re coming to us in the wrong order. Do you understand?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, you had a nosebleed which meant water changed into blood. We’ve had the toad migration, head lice at school, the death of the firstborn, horseflies around the muck-heap, a grasshopper squashed by Obbe’s boot, ulcers on my tongue from the fried egg, and hailstorms.’ ‘And you think that’s why there’s a cattle plague now?’ Hanna asks with a shocked expression. She’s laid her hand on her heart, exactly above the Barbie’s ears, as though she’s not allowed to hear what we’re discussing. I nod slowly. After this, there’s one more to come, I think to myself, and that’s the worst one: darkness, total darkness, daytime eternally clad in Dad’s Sunday overcoat.
I’d nervously shaken my head: once Mum was behind the glass of the TV set, we’d never get her back, or maybe only in pixels when the screen was snowy, and what would become of Dad then?
Promise me this will stay between us, dear toads, but sometimes I wish I had different parents. Do you understand that?’ I continue. ‘Parents like Belle’s who are as soft as shortbread just out of the oven and give her lots of cuddles when she’s sad, frightened or even very happy. Parents that chase away all the ghosts from under your bed, from inside your head, and run through a summary of the week with you every weekend like Dieuwertje Blok does on TV, so you don’t forget everything you achieved that week, all the things you tripped up on before scrabbling to your feet again. Parents that see you when you’re talking to them – even though I find it terrifying to look people in the eye, as though other people’s eyeballs are two lovely marbles you can continuously win or lose. Belle’s parents go on exotic holidays and make tea for her when she comes home from school. They’ve got hundreds of different sorts including aniseed and fennel, my favourite tea. Sometimes they drink it sitting on the floor because that’s more comfortable than sitting in a chair. And they horse around with each other without it turning into fighting. And they say sorry as often as they’re nasty to each other.
When Mum and Dad rescued the beans they had just frozen, they lay wet and floppy on the kitchen table. The little green bodies looked dismal, like an exterminated plague of bush crickets.
Lots of people want to run away, but the ones who really do rarely announce it beforehand: they just go.
" سنظل نكرر مانفعله هذا إلى أن نستوعب موت ماتياس ونفهمه، على الرغم من أننا لا نعرف سبيلاً بعينه إلى ذلك الفهم ".