Issue 14, Autumn 1956
The winter had set in earlier than usual. It was the beginning of November and already wet snow was scudding about, driven along by a storm. Sometimes it seemed as though the wind, rising after a breathing space, would smash the row of low houses and scatter their remains.
Henry stood in the narrow bay window of the front room and stared into the flying snow.
“I know the soft wood’s growing,” he said to himself. “But it has to be put where it’s safe. I’ll have to find a safe place and plant it there if the storms go on. Before it’s too late.”
After each gust of wind, a tremendous howling could be heard as the storm threw itself upon the wood opposite the house. A number of branches had already been torn off from the most exposed of the trees.
The house was on the Eastern outskirts of the town. Its window looked out on what was an almost open stretch of country where the storm could sweep along without any obstacle in its way. Directly opposite the house, however, the view was broken by a wood which had been a reserve belonging to a mill-owner, and once it was supposed to have contained deer. When planted, it had been half an hour’s distance from town, but now, suburbs had reached it and had begun to surround it. Wide strips of land were being prepared for building and farms had disappeared on both sides of it. The wood itself would soon disappear as well. This had been decided years before and it had not been cared for since. It was enclosed by a high fence made of iron bars with barbed wire at the top, but the foundations of the fence had decayed, so that it leaned outward and was broken in places.
When Henry was a boy, it had been an adventure to steal into the wood, for then there had nearly always been foresters on their rounds. Now, however, it was no longer guarded. Henry sometimes walked there under the motionless, dead branches spanned by webs, along paths almost impossible to see because of the load of soaked dead leaves which were never removed. What had previously been small ponds had turned into expanses of stagnant water which were shallow and filthy because the wooden borders had mouldered away and the earth of the embankments had fallen in. He had encountered frightened birds and squirrels in it, but had never seen a deer.
Behind him, in the living room, his mother was sitting at the table, listening to the storm. Now and then she looked with concern at some plants on a flower stand in the front room and wondered if they were too near the window, even though rugs had been put both on the sill and against the lower part of the frame.
“Neighbor Tonia said she’d move our gladiolus plant into the middle of the garden,” she said. “Because it couldn’t be seen. It was growing at the outer end, the farthest end of the garden. But she didn’t do it right, and now it’s dead. A gladiolus is such a delicate flower.” She shook her head. “It’s such a pity about that nice plant. It’s such a pity.” Neighbor Tonia had moved many years ago to another town.
Henry walked into the sitting room and sat down at the end of the divan where he began to stare at a newspaper. It was difficult to read because the sky was very dark.
His father stood looking outside into the back garden where the snow was melting on the flower beds. He put his ear against the old, brown cardboard loudspeaker and caught the half-past-twelve change of programme. The dance music stopped, and the half hour programme for farmers began. The old man took a running jump so that he managed to climb up on the divan. From there he could reach high enough to set the clock and to pull down a chain with a little weight in the shape of a fir cone. It was a small clock of matchwood with a tinplate pendulum, and its celluloid minute hand was patched up where it had once been broken. Breathing hard, the old man got down from the divan. He said that the clock was slow because it had dried out, and that he was going to oil it with lamp oil.
“Lamp oil’s no good for that!” Henry blurted out. “Lamp oil’s only good for cleaning something, or if you want to get rust off something!” He brought his face near to the old man’s head. “You mustn’t ever oil any wheels with lamp oil. You’d only wreck everything! Lamp oil has always got water in it. There are thousands and thousands of water particles in it!” He was sure he had learned something like that during the half year he had been at a technical school.
Henry was thirty-two. He had finished elementary school at fifteen, after which he had had a series of errand-boy jobs, but in each case he had been dismissed. After this, his parents had decided that he should continue his schooling. As a result they had sent him to a carpenters’ school, but halfway through the first year, they had been advised to take him back home.
“Yeah, yeah,” said the old man. He was looking out over the back garden again. Behind him, the old woman began to cover the table with two newspapers. She laid out four iron plates. Then she cut some bread and placed some slices beside each of the plates, now and then wiping her watering eyes with the back of her hand. She was not able to do many other tasks except to peel potatoes and clean vegetables. The rest of the housework was done by the old man.
Henry’s father went into the kitchen to stir the food which was on the stove, in order to keep it from sticking to the pan. Some thin lines of vapor from the cooking came floating through the kitchen door into the room.
Several minutes later they saw Albert cross the backyard. He entered the kitchen where he washed his hands and shook pieces of dried plaster out of his hair. He was two years older than Henry, but Henry could still remember how pale and fat Albert had been when he was a little boy and how when he suffered from attacks of asthma, he used to stand against the wall of the house and cry softly while the others kept on playing. Because of his frailty, he had not been sent into the mill as had the rest of Henry’s brothers and sisters, but had been apprenticed to a plasterer. Now he was a foreman, and because his job was in the neighborhood he took his midday meal at home.
Albert came into the room. His father followed close behind him and put the pan down on the table. The old woman distributed the food onto the plates and they began to eat in silence.
Albert took up his stack of bread and put it on the edge of his plate. He looked at the newspapers on the table with a wry face. Henry hated him because of his cleanliness and preciseness. He also hated him because he went each month by bus to see Femia, their sister, and also because he went on conducted tours, and sometimes even went to the opera. Afterwards, he would fill the house with his hoarse voice, trying to sing the arias. Henry glanced at Albert’s red, fat face. “He thinks he’s very clean,” he thought.
“You seem to think that newspapers are dirty,” he said to Albert. “But newspapers aren’t any dirtier than any other kind of paper. Paper consists of vegetable fibers.” The left corner of his mouth twisted downward and his face trembled.
“It’s plain filthy and unsanitary,” Albert said. “Ink is downright poison. I eat everything, but not if it’s dirty.”
“Printing ink is made of soot,” Henry answered. “Soot specially selected for it. And linseed oil. Soot’s not poison, and not even harmful. It’s only ground-up carbon, and carbon’s used in medicine.” He could feel himself beginning to sweat. “Everybody knows animals eat it. When deer find ashes of a fire, they eat all the charcoal in it they can find. Everybody knows that charcoal’s got carbon in it.”
“Why don’t you eat soot then?” Albert asked. “With salt and pepper on it.” He turned to the old woman. “Has the man come to clean the chimneys yet? When he comes, Henry must have his plate of soot. Don’t forget.”
“I didn’t say you could eat it like food,” Henry said. His mouth became thick with saliva.
“Ma, tomorrow at dinner time, don’t forget!” Albert told her. “Tomorrow at dinner time Henry must have a nice plate of soot.” He burst into a laugh, and a piece of food fell out of his mouth. Henry noticed that it was almost the same color as Albert’s hair. It made no sense to argue.
“Tomorrow at lunch, a plate of soot for our hardworking Henry!” Albert sang in a sort of bass recitative.
“You shouldn’t always quarrel,” the old woman said with concern. Her head shook on its thin stem, and her eyes turned damp. “Always quarreling, always quarreling,” she said with a sigh.
“I don’t quarrel,” Henry said.
“Ma doesn’t want you to,” she continued, wiping her eyes. “Quarreling is very bad for Henry.”
The old man looked at her and bent forward. “Eh?” he asked.
“The boys are quarreling again!” she screamed into his ear. “All that damned quarreling again.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbled.
They finished the meal in silence. Albert pushed his chair back and lit a cigarette.
“I’ll ask Rik about the address of that farmer,” Henry said. He got up and went upstairs to a small front room which had been partitioned off with fiber board from the rest of the garret. The only furniture in the room was a bed and a wardrobe. It was cold.
He left the room, and walked into the garret itself. Beneath the skylight was a lathe which stood amidst piles of shavings and sawdust. Nearby, in a butter box were some faded account sheets with his name printed on them. On top of these lay an oval rubber stamp that was hardened and dry. The lettering on the stamp read H. Aldering: Wood Turner.
After his failure at the technical school, Henry had for a short time been an apprentice to a wood turner. However, the wood turner had gone bankrupt, and Henry had then stayed at home doing odd carpentry jobs with the tools he had stolen during his apprenticeship. Saving the small amounts he earned, he bought an old electric motor and a lathe in order to turn chair legs, but he had never been able to sell his work. As a result he had greased the equipment, wrapped it up in rags, and for the last twelve years it had stood there untouched. Underneath it, the mounds of sawdust had turned dark from a fine layer of coal dust. “It’s not natural,” he said to himself. “If a machine makes something, then it isn’t a natural thing any more.”
He heard Albert pass through the kitchen and sculler, close the back door and then bang the gate shut. Through the window, he saw him come out of the alleyway next to the house and turn to the left. Henry reached out for a piece of coal and stepped back to the window, but Albert was out of sight.
Outside the wind was dying down and thick snow was falling. It stuck to the window panes, melted and trickled down. “The house is crying again,” he thought. On the pavement, below, the snow melted almost immediately, but on the trees in the wood it stayed longer. “The deer will help me,” he said to himself “And we’ll put a stop to all those people shadowing me. I’ve got to find the lantern.”
He went downstairs and sat on the divan. From there he could still look through the front window and watch the falling snow. His mother was doing her utmost to separate two parts of a cloth-covered metal button, in order to replace the worn cloth.
“I think I’ll put on ordinary ones,” she said. “These buttons don’t seem to come open.” She snipped off all the remaining buttons from an old woolen coat she held and began to search through a little box. “Our Albert’s going to buy a motorcycle,” she said. She scratched through the box like a hen, peering into it with her face directly above it. Henry’s father was in the kitchen, washing the dishes they had used.
Outside the gate opened with a rattle and a collie entered the backyard, rushed in the direction of the garden and then returned to the yard again, where it began jumping up against the scullery door. A woman in a brown coat crossed the backyard and went into the scullery.
“Why, Fanny’s here!” the old woman called out, clapping her hands. They could hear the noise of the dog barking and jumping in the kitchen, mingled with the mumbled curses of the old man.
Fanny came into the room. She kissed Henry’s mother, complained about the weather, and sat down on the divan at a distance from Henry. Then she told the dog to be quiet. The dog shook itself as though in a frenzy and some of the melting snow landed on the old woman. “Down, Nero!” she cried out, drawing back with a nervous titter.
“Couldn’t you leave your dog at home in this weather?” Henry asked.
“But the dog goes everywhere with her,” the old woman said in tones that were almost wailing. “Yes, Nero loves Fanny very much, doesn’t he? Yes! Wants to go everywhere with her, doesn’t he?” The dog tried to jump up against her.
“Down, Oscar!” Fanny called and when it returned to her she held the dog by its collar. “His nails should be trimmed,” she said, patting it on its back.
Fanny was a short, stout woman with a pink, kind face that had retained a childish expression even though it had begun to wrinkle. The impression of softness was marred, however, by her front teeth, which were too large and irregular, and in order to keep from lisping she had to twist her mouth. Sixteen years before, when she had married Rik, who was six years older than his brother Henry, she had been considered pretty in spite of her teeth. They had been married when she was four months pregnant, but nevertheless she had worn a white gown and white satin shoes, and this had provided much gossip for the neighbors. Proceeding to set up their household with old furniture given to them by relatives and friends, they had begun living almost at once on unemployment assistance. In the third year of their marriage, however, Rik took a job as a ship’s baker. But soon after, his stomach began to trouble him, and because he was forced more and more often to take sick leaves he finally lost his job. They had no children. The pregnancy had ended in miscarriage.
“I think that we’re going to have a white Christmas,” the old woman said, nodding and looking outside.
“But that’s still two months off,” said Fanny. “You can’t tell much about that now.”
“Is it still such a long time?” the old woman asked. “I thought Christmas was next week.” She smiled and rubbed her hands. “At Christmas time, all of us will be here, and we’ll have the tree in the front room in the blue pot, with lots of little lights, and we’ll sing, and our Albert’ll play the mandolin. All the children will be there. Won’t it be nice!”
“How can you ever put a tree in that small pot?” Henry asked. “A tree would never fit in a pot that size. And I suppose you want me to go into the woods and chop a tree down. But I won’t. You shouldn’t take trees out of the woods. Except if you want to grow them.”
The old man hurried into the room with a coffeepot too hot for his hands. He blew on them, and then began to fill the cups.
“How’s Rik?” he asked, shouting.
“So-so. He’s up again! He’s out of bed again!” Fanny shouted back, with a reassuring gesture of her hand. “He’s gone away on the train. He had to go and have a medical examination!” The old man looked at her and sat down, mumbling.
“He had to go and get examined,” Fanny said, this time to Henry’s mother. “They want to do us out of all our assistance money.”
“Poor Rik,” the old woman said. “Never feels well.”
“He’s only just out of bed,” Fanny went on. “And if he goes outside and there’s a cold wind, it hits his stomach, and that’s something he can’t stand. Then all those pains come back again right away.” She laid both hands on her abdomen, pressed them against her, and in doing so let the dog loose. It climbed up on the divan, and standing under the clock, it wagged its tail against the chains and weight, so that the ends of the chains became entangled and the pendulum stopped. Cursing, the old man stumbled onto the divan himself, kicked away the dog and rearranged the clock. Bending forward with a glance at Henry, Fanny began to chuckle, but Henry seemed not to notice.
“What awful weather,” the old woman said. “What a gloomy day.”
Henry’s father got down from the divan and looked out into the garden, his hands in his pockets. The dog, frightened, stood at the kitchen door, waiting for a chance to leave the room.
“I’m going to go meet the half past two train,” Fanny said. When no one replied she continued, “He’s feeling a lot better now, but he must be careful what he eats. He can’t keep much down. And those fits of crying go on. As always.”
“Poor Rik,” the old woman repeated. “Fanny, do take care of him, and maybe at Christmas he’ll be all right again.”
“It’s only a question of natural food,” Henry said. “If people ate natural food they wouldn’t be ill.”
“He eats only what the doctor says, and nothing else,” Fanny said. “That’s the only thing we can do. And as for the rest, we can only wait and see if it goes better this time.”
“He won’t ever get better with the food he eats,” Henry went on. “Natural food’s the only thing that can help him.”
The radio still played very softly, and now and then Henry’s father pressed his ear against the loudspeaker. Some music was on, but all that could be heard was a vague scratching, like a concert given by insects on miniature instruments.
“Do you think you know more than the doctor?” Fanny asked.
“Rik’s been dragged about for years from one doctor to another,” Henry said. “And what do they do? He only gets worse.” He tried to imitate a doctor, and squeaked, “You must be careful. From now on you can only eat this and this, and sometimes a little of that. But not too much! Remember that! Don’t forget! And now I’ll give you some pills.”
“They’ve tried everything,” Fanny said. “And when nothing worked, they operated. They’ve done everything they could.”
“Operated!” Henry cried out. “Always sawing and cutting up! The butcher on the corner could do just as well. You just cut away what you don’t like. That’s easy enough!”
“Rik’ll be all right again soon,” the old woman said, wiping her eyes. “But he should eat a lot. Then he’ll get strong again. Weak, thin people should eat as much as they can to get strong.”
“With natural food he would have been all right years ago,” Henry said. He was about to continue, but Fanny interrupted him.
“What’s this all about, this natural food of yours?” she asked sharply. “I’d like to know.”
“You know just as well as I do,” Henry answered. “And every doctor knows it, too. But they’re too stupid to use it. Everything that’s cooked is harmful. One should eat everything right away the way it comes out of nature. If it’s dirty, you wash it off, with cold water, and then you eat it. Do you think that deer cook their food? You mustn’t chop it up, either. You must eat everything whole; fish, carrots, eggs, meat, potatoes, vegetables, lettuce. Everything.”
“But how’s that possible?” Fanny asked. “If he even eats just one bite of something raw, he cries out with pain. You’re crazy.”
“It’ll probably hurt a bit at first,” Henry went on. “Because his body won’t be used to it right away. But he should stick to it. But, well, if he likes being ill and never doing a stroke of work, he can do as he likes.”
“Our Rik isn’t lazy,” the old woman said. “He’s always so hard at work.”
“Why don’t you eat that natural food of yours yourself?” Fanny asked. “Why don’t you eat raw potatoes and raw meat?”
“I don’t have anything to do with the cooking here,” Henry said. “I don’t meddle with it.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad for you if you did,” Fanny said. “Then at least you’d have something to do.”
The old man suddenly noticed that the radio programme had changed, and he turned it up so that it was very loud. The late aster is a typical autumn flower! a voice bellowed. It continues to blossom outside as late as mid-November! But however well it keeps in the garden, when cut and brought inside it will wither almost at once! A more suitable flower, that is to say if not the most suitable...
The old woman began to shout with all her might, protesting against its loudness. Finally Henry’s father understood and he turned back the knob. The dog meanwhile had become restless and was scratching at the door.
“Soft wood should not be put in a vase,” Henry said. “It must remain in the ground.”
“I’ve seen nice vases in show windows,” Fanny said, making a vague gesture in the direction of town. “They’ve got nice things there. But they aren’t cheap.”
“I’d like to have a nice little vase,” the old woman said. “A little vase, for tiny flowers. Then we could put it near the window, and we could look at it all the time.”
“They’ve got very nice things made of wood there, too,” Fanny went on. “Polished wood. All of them are round. There’s a lovely round cigarette box of light brown wood. I’d like to give it to Rik, for his birthday, if he can ever smoke again. It costs three fifty, but it’s such a nice box.” She looked at the clock. “They’ve got to go to the station,” she said. Henry’s father once again filled the cups.
“Those round wooden things are turned on a lathe, aren’t they?” Fanny asked, suddenly turning to Henry. “You can turn wood, can’t you? Why don’t you make things like that? If they’re at all nice, you can earn a lot of money with them.”
“No,” Henry said. “No.” He closed his eyes in order to keep composed. “If you want to buy something made of wood then buy it in a shop. And if you haven’t got enough money, then don’t buy it.” He got up, trembling, but he was able to control his voice. “I don’t mind if they try to follow and shadow me,” he continued, but then suddenly he began to shout. “I know what you’re after!” he screamed, pointing his forefinger at her face. “You all want to put me up upstairs and make me turn wood there without paying me! With my food pushed in through the door, and with what comes out thrown out the window! You’ve thought it out very well, this little plan of yours! But it won’t do!”
“Easy! Easy!” Fanny said. “I won’t eat you! I’m not touching you.”
“Where man goes, nature disappears,” Henry mumbled. “It’s not natural.” He slowly left the room. He went through the kitchen and into the scullery. The dog was about to follow him, but Fanny called it back. Behind him he could hear her indignant voice. He stood at the door between the kitchen and the scullery for a moment and listened. “But I didn’t mean that he should make me a box, or do anything for me at all!” he heard her remonstrating.
“It’s only because he always quarrels,” the old woman said. “It’s such a pity. He shouldn’t always quarrel. It’s not good for him.”
Henry shut the door. He picked up an old dark-lantern which stood behind some empty cans on the floor. It was covered with spider webs, and was very rusty. The shutter was stuck and when he finally succeeded in pulling it up it gave off a piercing screech. He rubbed away the dirt with a newspaper and saw that inside the lantern there was still a half-used candle.
Fanny passed hurriedly through the scullery, followed by the dog. She did not say good-bye. The dog stopped for a moment to sneeze.
“You won’t catch me,” Henry murmured, still bent over the lantern. “Don’t think I haven’t found you out. I know everything about all those plans of yours. It’s been very well thought out, but it won’t do.”
There was no answer, and when he turned around there was no one there. He ran outside and caught up with Fanny as she was about to open the gate.
“Wait! Wait!” he called. “I want to ask you something.”
She stopped, holding her hand on the latch. A thick swirl of snow fell upon them. The dog blinked its eyes in order to remove the snowflakes which had settled on its lids.
“I want to know the address of that farmer,” he said. “Where you and Rik were living. You know where I mean, don’t you?”
“What do you want it for?” she asked. She kept her hand on the latch.
“Well, don’t you know that it’s dangerous everywhere?” Henry asked.
“I don’t see why I should give it to you,” she said. “Why do you want to go there? I don’t want anybody to go and trouble those people. They’ve done a lot for us.”
“They’re drawing up lists,” he said. “And they’ve put out sentries. At night it isn’t so bad. But in the daytime they can easily see who you are and where you’re going. They’ve been following me all this last week. And they’ve written down everything. Also about the deer.” He smiled. “You know I’m not frightened really, but I don’t like it.” Fanny looked at him with wide open eyes, and she drew in short breaths.
“Has it got any trees, this farm?” Henry asked. “Is there a wood?”
“Oh yes,” she said nervously. “There’re lots of woods everywhere. And trees, too. Oh yes.”
“So trees can grow there,” Henry said pensively, drawing nearer to her. “Well, where is it?”
“I...I don’t know, I’ve forgotten,” she stammered. “You’d better ask Rik. Rik knows.”
“If you can’t remember where it is, how do you know then about the woods and the trees?” he asked. His mouth began to fill with saliva. Fanny lifted the latch and opened the gate. Henry slowly raised his arm.
“Lying, that’s all you can do,” he said. “And creep and hide in the bushes with everybody.”
Fanny pushed the gate open and, followed by the dog, hurried away. Henry jumped forward and struck at her, but missed. She herself had not noticed, but the dog whirled around and tried to attack. Henry stepped back in time, however, and slammed the gate shut.
Everything was quiet again. His shoulders and head were covered with snow. He looked out over the garden. “The poor birds,” he said to himself. “They’re going to die. But I’ll bury them. I’ll give them a decent funeral.”
He went inside. His mother was sitting in an easy chair near the stove.
“Poor children,” she said. “They’re always so sweet, and they play together so nice.” She gave a soft, moaning sigh. The old man was in the front room, sweeping the floor.
“Rik had to go and be examined again,” she said. “They want to take his money from him. But Doctor Langelaan’s against it. Doctor Langelaan, he’s a real doctor. He’s on our side.”
The old man passed through, on his way to the kitchen carrying the dustpan and the brush.
“He’s gone there by train,” she said. She tried to remember more details, but she could not. “Trains cost a lot,” she said. “Cost a lot of money. And they haven’t got it. They haven’t got the money. Poor children.” She drew her shoulders together to show her concern, but then her face suddenly brightened. “He can go there with our Albert, on the motorcycle!” she said. Then she sank into a doze.
It grew darker and darker inside the house. It had stopped snowing, and a brown haze seemed to be rising up out of the earth. Shadows began to spread over the gardens and small houses.
“I’m going to buy some tobacco,” the old man said, putting on his coat. “It’s not snowing any more. On the way back I’ll drop in to see how our blind comrade is.” This was a neighbor, Mr. Captain, who lived several houses away. The two had worked together for many years in the mill, until Mr. Captain had received a head injury from a shaft of one of the looms. After this his wife had to read his newspapers and mail out loud to him, but he went on reading books himself, in braille, about the working class movement, which were sent to him by friends.
Henry went into the scullery to fetch the dark-lantern and came back into the room. The old woman was asleep. Her mouth had fallen open, showing the wet, brown flesh inside her lips.
Henry lit the candle in the lantern and then, holding it up, stared fixedly into the flame. He had not heard the slow, shuffling footsteps in the kitchen. There was a knock at the door.
“Hello folks,” Julius said, coming in. He looked around, trying to accustom his eyes to the vague light in the room. “Mother sleeping?” he asked, walking carefully to the other easy chair which stood between the window and divan. “Don’t wake her up!” he said softly, with many gestures. “I don’t need to sit near the stove.” He opened his coat laboriously, and began shifting himself about in the chair. Something snapped and creaked. When he had found a satisfactory position he smiled. He wore a corset of yellow leather reinforced by metal ribs, which enclosed the whole of his hips and waist. He was forty-three, but he was very thin and looked old. He spoke slowly in a mild, agreeable voice.
“How are things here?” he asked. The corset looked like a children’s bathtub into which he had stepped accidentally, sunk through the bottom up to his hips, and which he could not now remove. Henry blew the candle out.
“What’s that lantern for?” Julius asked.
“I’ve just been trying it out,” Henry answered.
The old woman woke up, making little grunting noises. Julius got up from the chair so that his figure was clearly outlined against the window. A faint smell of warm leather had spread about through the room.
“Here’s a surprise!” the old woman called out. “What about some coffee! Father! Make some coffee for our Julius!” Julius sat down again.
“Father’s over at the Captains,” Henry said.
“Is Albert in?” Julius asked.
“Our Albert’s working,” the old woman answered. “He’s always working.”
“On Saturday afternoon?” Julius asked. “Is he still over there at work?” Then, reflecting, he said half to himself, “Yes, of course, they want to get those houses ready before it starts freezing.”
“It’s so nice that you’ve come,” she continued. “I’ll tell Albert you came to see him. It’s so nice.”
“I’d like to get State and Revolution back from him, if he’s finished reading it,” Julius said. “But maybe he’s not finished it yet.”
“Our Albert works so hard! So hard!” she replied, shaking her head. “Always working. He hasn’t got any time even to read. Always at work, our poor Albert. Always outside in the cold and the wind. Fanny was here.”
“And Rik, too?” Julius asked. “Was he here?’
“He had to go have an examination,” she said. “And trains cost such a lot!”
“He’s hardly out of bed and they’re dragging him around to be examined again,” Julius said, shaking his head. His voice was not indignant, but sounded sad.
“Do you think they’ll have good doctors there?” she asked. “Oh, they’re sure to do everything for our Rik. And doctor Langelaan says he’ll try and do everything for Rik, too.”
“Doctor Langelaan says Rik can’t work,” Julius said, trying to assume an upright position, although it appeared to cause him pain. “He can’t do full time or even part time work. He says that Rik shouldn’t work because his stomach is really bad. He’s written it down on paper, too. But even if his stomach was all right he still couldn’t work because his kidneys are bad, too. His stomach was already in bad shape before he was taken to the camp, and it got a lot worse there. The only reason he’s got that bad kidney is from that kick. I was there, and I saw it. He almost died of pain, and he pissed blood. But they pay no attention when he tells them all that.”
“Doctor Langelaan’s an awful good doctor,” the old woman said.
“And Doctor Jansink claims that Rik’s stomach has nothing to do with the camp, and that his kidneys are all right because he is able to eat salty food,” Julius continued.
“Well, we’re not going to put up with lies like that!” she said with vehemence.
“The only thing you can do is to keep your head, and don’t make a fuss,” Julius said. “If they think you’re a nuisance, you’re lost. When they write you a letter, you’ve got to write another back to them. And if you can’t write a good one, you’ve got to go to somebody who knows how to do it. Somebody who knows about things like that. Take me, for instance. They think they’ve found out so many things about my back! They say it’s normal that a man of my age has a shifted and cracked spine. They say that it’s bone degeneration, and they always ask me if I used to drink a lot, and so forth. But they never even consider what went on in the camp, oh no!”
“When they lived with that farmer, Rik didn’t have anything wrong with his stomach,” Henry said. “By the way, where was that farm?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Julius said. “He didn’t have any pain there at all. All the time he was there he was free of pain.”
“Where was it? Where’s that farm?” Henry asked.
“I think it was somewhere in Bursen,” Julius answered. A surprised and worried look came over his face.
“Where’s our Katie?” the old woman asked.
“She had to do some housework,” Julius answered. “She’s at home.” He never brought his wife with him on family visits. She could neither read nor write and because of this his family looked down on her.
“It’s always good to have a place where you can hide if necessary,” Henry said. “They never lay off. They spy on everybody all the time.”
“You’ve got to get some of those queer ideas out of your head,” Julius said.
Henry lit the candle in the lantern. The old woman began to doze off again.
“What do you need that for?” Julius asked. “Why are you lighting that?”
“The soft wood’s already grown a lot,” Henry answered. “But I can’t leave it outside in this weather any longer.”
“The what?” Julius asked.
“I said the soft wood!” Henry suddenly shouted. His mother jumped at the sound of his voice, but she again closed her eyes.
“Soft wood,” Julius said, reflecting. He cast a short, cautious glance at his brother.
“Would you maintain that something made out of wood that’s been sawed or turned on a lathe is still natural?” Henry asked in a hard, interrogating tone.
Julius cast his eyes downward.
“All I’ve got to do is grow it,” Henry said. “That’s all. In a safe place. Do you mean to say that I can’t grow wood?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that,” Julius said in a very kind voice. “But what I do know—of course I don’t know much about it—is that growing trees is a trade in itself. It needs experience. And you’ve got to have lots of land for it. And money.”
“Only a small plot of ground that’s guarded day and night,” Henry said. “Because my soft wood is pretty expensive. Everybody wants to have it.”
There was silence. Then Henry said, speaking quickly, “If necessary, I’ll wait a couple of hours. But if the storm goes on like this, I’ll have to bring it inside.” Suddenly shifting into an excited, indignant tone, he added, “Albert’s got to stop helping them and giving them information. He won’t gain anything by telling them where they can find me and where they should follow me. I tell you, he’s got to stop it.”
Julius said nothing. Henry got his coat from the hall, picked up the lantern, and left.
Outside, it was almost dark and there was a strong wind. The snow had melted on the streets, but at the edge of the wood some of it still remained.
Henry followed along the fence to the right until he came to what had long ago been a driveway into the wood. He stopped in front of a double gate. The lock was covered with layers of rust. He had only to press to make the gate give way, and to walk through into the wood.
As soon as the wood had closed in on him, he opened the slide of the lantern. All around him there were the sounds of wind and of melting snow which dripped from bough to bough. He had to lift his feet high to keep from getting entangled in dead branches.
After a while, the trees opened up along what had once been a path, because here the undergrowth under his feet was not as thick as it had been. His feet made sopping sounds as he walked. Frequently he had to stop to remove the pieces of snow or lichen which fell on him from the trees.
The path began to widen and at last Henry entered on an open space overgrown with grass and tall nettles. In the middle of it stood an old wooden hut. The boarding on its sides had rotted away, so that grass and other small plants grew in the cracks. The wind had torn great sheaves of thatch out of the roof, and had scattered them about. The lower half of the door was hidden by grass and weeds. He did not turn the handle but simply pushed the door inward, because the wood holding the lock was completely decayed.
The ground surface of the hut had no boards, but only moist sand. On this lay pieces of a broken wheelbarrow and a rusted spade. Several of the rafters had broken in two and had fallen down so that they stood on end. Some rain had fallen through the roof and many puddles had formed in the sand. All the light there was came in through one tiny skylight.
Well away from the door, standing upright in the sand, were two rows of twigs which had the appearance of having been planted there because each one had a small wet hole at its base. None of the things measured more than a foot from the ground. Between the two rows stood a white enamel pail. Henry went over, lifted the pail, and taking a piece of bread out, examined it carefully. Then he nodded. “Yes, the deer has eaten from it,” he said. He put the pail down again. Then he studied the rows of small branches. One of them stood at an angle. “So Albert’s been here,” he thought. “I got here just in time.”
He pulled the twigs out of the sand, counted them up to sixteen, and arranged them into a bundle. With great care he put them under his coat. Then he picked up the lantern and pail, and left.
The wind had lessened, but now and then there were violent gusts that shook sprays of water on him. “Too much water is dangerous for you,” Henry said, patting his coat where the twigs lay.
When he got back home, he found the old woman still sleeping. Julius was reading a newspaper.
“Didn’t I tell you that the deer would eat it?” Henry asked with a soft, triumphant smile. He put the lantern on the table and held the pail with the piece of bread close to his brother’s face. Julius bent forward and looked into the pail.
“Yes. You’re right,” he said. He stared into Henry’s eyes for a short moment, and then he nodded. “But only a small piece.”
“It was the smallest of them,” Henry said, “It climbed into the pail. I investigated it.”
He put the pail on the floor and took out the twigs from under his coat. “I’m going to go see that farmer,” he said. “He’ll give me a piece of ground where he’s got nothing else growing. It’s pretty likely that I’ll go and live there, too. And then, when these have been planted, and when they’re, let’s say, this high”—he held his hand about two feet from the floor—“then deer about this size can come and live under it.” He indicated the size with his thumb and forefinger.
“Where did you get all those from?” Julius asked, pointing at the twigs. “And why did you need the lantern?”
“Oh, I shine it right into their faces, and then they don’t trouble me,” Henry said, chuckling. “Albert wanted to eat the bread.” He pointed into the pail. “All he wants to do is to stuff himself up with food. But I don’t intend to give it to him, because it’s the deer’s. I don’t have to take it back to them, but you can bet that Albert won’t get it. Oh no.”
He left the room, taking the pail and the branches with him. Julius saw him go into the garden and holding the bread in one hand, begin to dig a hole in the earth and to scoop it up into the pail. When it seemed to be sufficiently full, be dropped the bread into the hole and covered it up with loose soil. Then, pushing the twigs down gently into the pail, he brought it inside and put it down in the scullery.
“The deer are sure to get the bread now,” he said when he came back in the room. “That much I know. And I don’t have to take it back to them. They’ll carry it back along their underground passages. It’ll take them a bit more time, but they won’t mind.” He shrugged his shoulders.
The old woman woke up and looked about in confusion. When she saw Julius she smiled.
“It’s very cold,” she said. “Ugh, how cold it is!”
“It’s going to freeze, I think,” Julius said.
“Why aren’t we ever warm enough?” she complained.
“Are you warm enough over at your place? Is it warm enough for Katie? It mustn’t be too cold for Katie.”
“It’s never very cold there,” Julius answered. “But it’s always so damp.”
Julius lived in the center of the town, in one of the old, narrow streets. The street door opened directly into the front room which was a parlor that they never used, and in order to protect the carpet they always kept a path of newspapers through it leading to the small back room where they ate and slept. One morning when Katie was dusting, she discovered that all the furniture in the parlor had become completely ruined by dampness. The chair seats were so decayed that she could press her fingers through almost any part of them, and the wood of the table and chairs had mouldered away to such an extent that she could have easily torn off pieces with her hands. All of this, however, was not visible to outsiders, so everything had been left as it was.
“Maybe we’ll get a gas heater,” Julius said. “The heat they throw is so dry.”
The old woman began to snicker. “We don’t use gas,” she said. Years and years before, the gas meter had gone wrong and for a time it had not registered the output of gas. Every time the man who read the meters had approached, she had removed the pans with incredible speed from the gas stove and had put them on an empty coal range, and after having concealed the gas stove, she had poked about industriously in the range until the man arrived. This had gone on for almost a year before the gas company had become suspicious and had replaced the meter.
Julius smiled. He remembered the story. He did not answer, but looked at Henry who had taken a seat at the table. A sheet of paper lay in front of him and the lantern stood at his side. The slide was open and the candle was still burning. He was writing on the paper with a piece of charcoal.
THE SOFT WOOD, he wrote. Is here. I have it. I shall grow it. The Deer will live under it. The Silver Queen of the deer. She said it was very good. She drank Glasses full of tea.
“Just wait and see,” he said, looking at Julius. He tapped on the paper. “I’m going to put it on the wall, outside, but not before dark. Then you’ll see people coming from everywhere. They all want to have some, but they’re not going to get it right away.”
Julius sat up straight in an attempt to read what had been written on the paper, but he felt Henry looking at him, and turning his eyes aside, he sank back again into the chair. The corset grated and creaked. Henry folded the paper, put it in his pocket, and closed the lantern.
Just then they heard people coming into the house through the street door. It was Henry’s father, leading Mr. Captain in by the arm. Mr. Captain shuffled in, with a continuous smile on his face as though of surprise.
“This way towards the stove,” the old man said. “Yes, yes. This is the way to the stove.” He chuckled and led Mr. Captain around the table. In doing so they passed Henry who, holding his breath, shrank back noiselessly step by step.
“Come and sit here, where it’s warm,” the old woman called. “We’ve got it nice and warm for you.” Henry had bumped up against the divan and was slowly sitting down. The old man, still holding Mr. Captain’s sleeve, drew up two chairs and pushed him into one of them.
“Nice to see you, neighbor,” the old woman said loudly. “Our Julius’s here, too.”
“Hello Captain,” Julius said. “How’s it going?”
“Fine, fine,” Mr. Captain said, turning his face toward the back window and smiling. “And how are you?”
“Isn’t it awfully cold, neighbor?” Henry’s mother asked.
“Yes, very cold,” Mr. Captain answered. “Suzy’s caught the flu again. But I don’t think I’ll get it so easy. I don’t go out if I don’t have to.”
It grew darker in the room, but they did not turn on the light. Now and then little puffs of smoke burst out from the closed lantern. The faces of the group around the stove were lit up in a red glow from the coals behind the mica panes.
“Suzy’s got the flu!” the old woman shouted into the old man’s ear.
“Yeah, yeah, the flu,” he muttered.
“So everybody’s all right here,” Mr. Captain said. The light of the stove shone through the flesh of his ear.
“Mr. Captain, you must put your face very near the stove,” Henry suddenly called. “Do it right away!”
Mr. Captain turned his body to one side with a start. His smile left him for a moment, but then it reappeared.
“No thanks,” he answered. “I’m near enough to it. It’s warm enough here where I am.”
“You must get so near that you think you can’t stand it,” Henry said. “You’ve got to get hot that the skin falls off. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Julius straightened himself up in his chair. He looked at Henry with an anxious twisted face and moved his mouth, but did not speak. The smell of the leather corset mixed with that of the lantern.
“Mr. Captain’s warm enough,” the old woman said. “Isn’t he?”
“All day long they come and ask me for advice,” Henry said. “And they talk and talk and talk! But it’ll soon be over. I’ve written it down.” He tapped on his chest. He got up and began to walk up and down. “They can read it themselves! And then they won’t bother me any more. It’ll be nice to have some peace, at last!”
Mr. Captain’s face took on a frightened look. He listened attentively to the words, following Henry’s voice with his head.
“Oh I hope you’re not going to quarrel and scold again,” the old woman said. “You mustn’t do that. Those boys shouldn’t always quarrel.”
They heard the sound of the gate latch and then Albert crossed the backyard with his bicycle. He was followed by Fanny, but this time she did not have the dog with her.
“They’re not afraid of the cold! Not afraid of the cold at all!” applauded the old woman. “Our Fanny’s come to see us again. Even though it’s so cold!”
They came into the room.
“Any of you want to sit by the stove?” Mr. Captain asked. By the time they saw who was speaking he had already risen to his feet. Fanny refused the seat and pulled up another chair for herself, sitting down between Mr. Captain and the old woman. She had gone to the station another two times, and then had returned home where she had left the dog.
“Rik didn’t come in on the half past four train,” she said. “I waited awhile, but he wasn’t on it.”
“And I was standing at the other gate when the train came in,” Albert said. “I would have seen him if he’d been on it.” He sat down near the radio and put it on. It needed some time to warm up and made only a buzzing noise. “What a filthy stink there is in here,” he said, sniffing.
“They said all the trains were late,” Fanny said. “A man from the railway office told me and he said it was because of the frozen switches.”
“And you believed it,” Henry said. “Yes. You believe everything.”
“You shouldn’t quarrel, Henry,” his mother said.
“He should keep his trap shut, that’s all he has to do,” Albert said. He turned the knob of the set and the blare of a military band filled the room. When he saw Julius put a finger in each ear, he turned it down low.
“Maybe he didn’t feel well after the examination, and stayed with Femia for a while,” Fanny said. “He’ll probably come in on a later train.” Then she added, as though thinking out loud, “But maybe he’s gone to the harbor.”
“It’s that rotten lantern that’s making the stink,” Albert said. “That dirty pig’s making us sit here in this stink. But we know what to do.” He seized the lantern, stepped resolutely to the window, opened it, and threw the lantern outside. It came down in the backyard, and there was a sound of shattered glass. “One piece of rubbish out from under foot,” he said with a grimace, and he closed the window.
Henry twisted his mouth, but he did not say anything.
“All that muck in the scullery, all that trash in the pail will have to be thrown out, and pretty quick,” Albert said. “I’m going to need that pail for cleaning my motorcycle.”
“Our Albert’s going to buy a motorcycle,” the old woman said. “He’s been working so hard, and now he can buy it. Puff puff, and he’ll be able to go wherever he wants.”
“All those damned sticks got tangled up in my bicycle wheels,” Albert said. “I almost broke my neck trying to put it inside. Go and clear out that stuff right away!”
Henry hurried toward the door. In doing so he bumped against the table but he regained his balance and kept on. As he entered the kitchen, however, his pace turned into an uncertain shuffle, and a sound of moaning broke from his throat.
“What’s the matter with him?” Fanny asked.
“Oh, he’s only acting funny again,” Albert said.
Suddenly, from the scullery, there came a loud shriek which was followed immediately by a dull clash of metal.
Albert rushed over to the kitchen. Fanny jumped up and followed him. The scullery door stood open and they could see Henry holding an old iron gas pipe high over his head. He groaned and then with all his strength he brought the pipe down on Albert’s bicycle. Bits of enamel scattered about in a fine spray.
“Shut that door!” Albert called to Fanny. She closed the door behind her and stood with her back against it. Albert walked halfway across the kitchen.
“Stop it!” he yelled. “Do you hear! All you break will have to be paid for! You’ll have to pay for every cent of it!”
“Ummn!” Henry groaned. He struck another blow at the bicycle, this time bending its frame. Then he turned around, and they saw his face. It was pale, with red spots. Around the eyes the skin was dark and swollen, and the corners of his mouth were pulled down with such tenseness that the inner side of his lower lip could be seen. Staggering, he approached Albert, and again lifted the gas pipe. They could see a bubble forming on his lip.
“Mother!” Fanny yelled. She tried to open the door of the room but, like a frightened animal, she only pushed the latch fast by her own weight.
Henry took another couple of steps. “Beesh. Seew. Seew,” he brought out. His hands opened and he dropped the gas pipe. He seemed about to turn toward Albert, who had shrunk back pressed against the sink, but he shuffled past him. Fanny had succeeded in opening the door, and as she pushed it in she almost lost her balance. Henry had nearly reached it when his knees bent out and he fell. He rolled over on his back. His arms and legs shook involuntarily and his head thumped against the floor.
“That’s that,” Albert said.
A froth collected at Henry’s mouth, and his movements slackened.
“I think I’ll take him to the front room,” Albert said. “He can’t do any harm there.” He grasped Henry under the arms and dragged his body through the living room where the others still sat round the stove. Fanny followed him.
“The less comfortable he is, the sooner he’ll get over it,” Albert said, letting the body down on the front room floor.
Mr. Captain had followed the sequence of sounds with a worried face. Henry’s father had at last noticed that something was happening and looked up. “Damn,” he said. “All that business again.” He got up and put the light on over the mantelpiece and then another which sat on top of the radio. It was still playing march music, but softly.
“It all comes from that quarreling,” the old woman said. “And then he just loses his temper.”
The movements in Henry’s body had almost stopped. A sharp, sour smell began to spread through the room.
“He’s wet himself again,” Albert said. “That’s why I didn’t put him on the rug.” Both Fanny and he stepped back into the living room and Albert closed the door.
“Cold’s good for him,” he said. Then he went into the scullery to examine his bicycle. Through the window, they saw him go out into the backyard with the pail of twigs. He slung them out over the garden and shook the earth out of the pail.
Everyone was silent. The only sounds in the room were the creaking noises made by the corset of Julius and the soft music that the radio played.
“Are you keeping warm over at your place, Mr. Captain?” Fanny asked. “It’s so very cold everywhere, don’t you think?”
“Pretty warm,” Mr. Captain answered. “I sit in the kitchen most of the time. But we haven’t got a stove in there. There’s no chimney in the kitchen. So we have to put on the gas.”
Albert came back into the room. “The frame’s bent all to hell,” he said. “That’s forty or fifty guilders down the drain.”
“What did he do it with?” Fanny asked.
“A gaspipe,” Albert said. “The gas works people left it here.”
The old woman began to snicker again. She was on the verge of saying something, but she fell silent. Suddenly she said, “It’s beginning to get warm here. The children are so nice to me. We’re all going to be together soon and then we’ll sing.”
“The next train’s at five-forty, isn’t it?” Fanny asked.
“He’ll come over here, won’t he?” Albert remarked.
“It’s always good weather in trains,” the old woman said. “Always warm. You can look out the window and see where you’re going.”
“I don’t know,” Fanny said uncertainly. “He had in mind going to the shipping office, at the harbor, if he felt all right after the examination. But maybe he had to wait there a long time.”
“Which shipping office?” Julius asked.
“Rik wants to go to sea again,” Fanny answered.
“What’s that?” Julius asked. “He hasn’t been at sea for twelve years, has he?”
“We’ve been talking about it a lot,” Fanny said. “And I think it might be a good idea. If he thinks he’d be able to sail again, he ought to do it. We can’t keep on living like this for ever.”
“You don’t know what they’re going to say after he’s been examined, though,” Julius said.
“What difference will that make?” Fanny retorted. “They’ll only think up something else right off again. They know us. They know what we belong to. Don’t you think that plays a part?”
“But will he he able to stand the food on board any better now?” Albert queried.
“Well, his ship’s still sailing,” Fanny said. “He heard about it a couple of weeks ago. It’s the Alicante.”
“That’s a Spanish ship, isn’t it?” Albert asked. “Isn’t that a Spanish name?”
“It’s the name of a town in Spain,” Julius said.
“Well, it’s the same ship,” Fanny said. “And it’s still got the same captain. It’s Captain Schuurman.”
“Captain Schuurman,” Julius reflected. “But wasn’t that the ship where he got into all those fights, and where he got fired? Wasn’t it because he painted a hammer and sickle on the deck?”
“Captain Schuurman wasn’t against him!” Fanny almost shouted. “He was on Rik’s side! The purser and the steward, they’d been at it for weeks. And they got him mad. Captain Schuurman was very sorry, and he gave Rik a big box of cigarettes when he left. He said he knew it wasn’t Rik’s fault.”
“Our Rik isn’t lazy,” the old woman said.
Mr. Captain got up, saying he had to leave.
“Oh, don’t go yet, neighbor,” the old woman said, rubbing her hands. “Here we are all of us together. And Albert’s going to play the mandolin.”
Mr. Captain sat down again.
“All of them’re here,” she said as she turned her tiny face toward the others and began making movements with her head as though she were counting the number of persons with her chin. “Fanny, and our Albert, and Rik, and...” She stopped, and for a moment an impatient look passed over her face.
“Rik isn’t here yet, mama,” Fanny said. “He’ll come presently.”
The old woman rallied. “Oh, that’s it!” she said, and she clapped her hands. “Yes, they’ll all be here. And our Albert’ll play for us.”
There was a silence. Outside the darkness was almost complete. More and more lights went on in the houses around.
“Albert’s going to play,” she continued. “Albert, get the mandolin!”
Albert turned off the radio and reached for the mandolin which stood behind it. He began tuning it and then he strummed on the strings. His heavy eyes stared absently into the room and his face took on an unctuous expression. Then, after a kind of prelude, he moved into the melody and sang slowly,
“The People’s Blood Is Shed In Streams...”
Mr. Captain smiled and, turning his head toward Albert, nodded in time to the music. The old man at his side shifted his chair and, holding one hand to his ear, he began beating the rhythm with his free arm.
Julius sat motionless, staring at the floor.
The old woman raised her thin, faltering voice. Her eyes began to grow wet again as she joined Albert in the second line, singing,
“And Bitter Tears In It Are Shed...”