On one of their trips relations between them had become very strained. Hagar had been reluctant to come in the first place and refused to go anywhere off the beaten track. May felt as if she had been put in quarantine and suspected that there was another, modern world out there behind the Biblical facade. Hagar and May often seemed to be talking about two conflicting realities. ‘Where are the people?’ May had asked. ‘Everywhere,’ Hagar replied. ‘I can’t see them,’ said May. ‘Perhaps they don’t want to see you either,’ laughed Hagar. ‘I wouldn’t want to live in the kingdom of the blind,’ May had observed acidly. ‘No one is asking you to,’ retorted Hagar. ‘I suppose my nose isn’t the right size,’ said May. Hagar grinned. ‘Much too long, and you’re determined to stick it in everywhere.’ ‘Buy yourself a pug dog,’ May advised her. And so on and so forth. At night everything had to be put right with kisses.
They had driven in silence through barren hills. A hot desert wind was blowing. The car was like an oven on wheels. Suddenly May had caught sight of a herd of black goats, with white faces. As the car approached, the animals skipped up the slope and stood there looking down at them, motionless and out of reach. May wanted to clamber up after them. Hagar shouted that it was pointless. ‘They’re stupid creatures!’ She went on shouting even after May had started the climb: the echo of her voice seemed to be trying to block May’s path upwards. The goats had disappeared from view, but the pebbles rolling down betrayed their presence. May cut her hands. On closer inspection the rocks turned out to be covered in grey-green scrub. That’s what they used to weave the crown of thorns, thought May. ‘Who are they?’ asked the echo in her head. The goats stood there bleating at her in mockery. They had been stripping the land bare since the time of Abraham. The dust from the eroded soil stung May’s eyes. She was about to give up the chase, when she saw a goat within striking distance. Perfectly balanced on the loose stones. It was chewing on a length of something indefinable. Its black eyes gleamed as though swimming in oil. The blaze on its elongated forehead was like a brand. A swollen udder hung down between its hind legs. ‘Hello, Daisy,’ said May. The goat did not move a muscle; it looked right through her. May slid cautiously back down, aware that she risked being butted in the small of her back. ‘Well?’ Hagar’s gesture seemed to ask. ‘I couldn’t get close enough to them,’ May had mumbled. ‘What did I tell you?’ Hagar was satisfied. But if she thought that May had given up trying to get better acquainted with both goats and people, she did not yet know her travelling companion.
In the middle of nowhere, heading in no particular direction, an old blind man had come towards them, led by a boy. ‘They have lots of eye disease,’ said Hagar, as though it were some genetic peculiarity. ‘Malnutrition and dust, lack of hygiene, vitamin deficiency.’ May rattled off what she had learned. Sympathetic whites are well-informed about the wretchedness of the deprived. The old man looked as wise as he was helpless. A gaunt face with sharp features. The typically hesitant gait, groping his way forward. Hagar had slowed down in order to make less dust. The boy had said something to the old man. Was it his grandfather? Then he raised a clenched fist. May saw the man and the boy disappearing in the wing-mirror as though they were a mirage. ‘The lame leading the blind,’ May had said. ‘There was nothing the matter with the boy,’ replied Hagar. ‘I mean us.’ May had realised just in time that it would be better to leave Brueghel out of it.
Almost back in civilisation, they were held up by a flock of sheep which were blocking the road and were in no hurry. All Hagar’s beeping did nothing but provoke hilarity in the children who surrounded the car in an instant. May looked at the golden yellow houses with their green-painted door frames and remembered the watercolours that they had painted at school. These were the same houses. She had learned to draw this country without knowing it, the antique version at least. The house in Nazareth. Joseph and Mary. Baby Jesus.
A girl and a woman emerged from an underground oven. They had been baking bread on the hot stones. The leaven to make the dough rise had come from the previous batch. For thousands of years. The same leaven. The same bread. The same stones. The girl wore a lilac dress and blue plastic sandals. Her white scarf was tied in a knot at the neck. She crossed her arms and smiled. For no reason. Good-naturedly. The mother walked behind her daughter with a dish of round loaves. Her black dress had an embroidered bodice and an embroidered strip in the same pattern running from top to bottom on either side. The ends of her veil had been crossed under her chin and thrown back over her shoulders. A knitted lilac cardigan completed her outfit. The woman was smiling, proud of her bread, proud of her daughter. If Hagar had not restrained her, May would have gone straight off to have a cup of coffee with them. In frustration she took a petit beurre biscuit from the packet that Hagar carried round with her everywhere. In bed the crumbs chafed May’s back like gravel. A little girl pressed her nose against the car window. May wound it down to give the child a biscuit. The packet was snatched out of her hands with such force that May was thankful not to have lost a finger. Even the sheep realised that Hagar’s patience was at an end: they scattered in all directions. The moment Hagar opened her mouth May had cried ‘What did I tell you?!’ on her behalf. But she thought: Something’s wrong. The palms of her hands were burning. Her skin was full of splinter-like thorns. It took her a whole evening to extract the wretched things with a pair of tweezers, the tears running down her cheeks. For days afterwards black tips kept appearing. She held a thorn under a magnifying glass and saw that there were barbs along its length. ‘Your hands are going to get infected,’ Hagar had said. May bought disinfectant from the chemist’s and sat soaking her hands three times a day. ‘I’m washing my hands of the whole thing,’ she would say to deflect her friends’ solicitude. She dreamed that she had got lost in the Negev, and as happens in dreams she knew in advance that she would not escape from the desert alive. A black billy-goat barred her way. She tried to skirt around it, but it leaped from left to right until May stopped to face her doom. The monster maintained that it could transform stones into bread, but that what it was really after was her soul. It was a large, hairy billy-goat with curled horns and its distinguishing feature was a long woolly tail. Its coat was shot through with silver threads. It did not need to leap on her, its eyes were enough to make May wake with a scream. ‘I dreamed of the devil,’ she said. Hagar had looked at her as though she was insane.
Hands trembling, May had gone to the kitchen to make herself a glass of warm milk and honey. The old sorcerer had given her quite a fright. Ruth had brought ointment to help May get rid of the last few thorns. She studied May’s hands like a fortune-teller and shook her head. It’s lucky your sins are not written in your hands, May had thought. Ruth had been evacuated from London to Wales during the blitz. In a village school the children had stared at her. ‘Where are your horns?’ They had never seen a Jewish child but were firmly convinced that Jews had horns and goat’s feet. They were devils incarnate. ‘Can you believe it? Children. They knew nothing about anything. And yet there It was,’ Ruth had said, still astonished. In Ruth May recognised the girl with the baggy socks and a name-and-address tag pinned to her coat. Ruth had been lucky. On the continent devils went to hell to burn forever. Your dreams don’t count, thought May. Not really. You couldn’t help it. When she saw May sitting hunched up Ruth had put her arm around her. ‘Come on, sweetie.’ ‘She hasn’t even got hair on her legs,’ Hagar had exclaimed.’ ‘I’m going to let mine grow from now on, nice and sexy,’ said Alida. ‘I don’t want goat’s legs,’ moaned Dina. Mischa had stuck his two extended forefingers above his head. ‘Just you wait till you’ve got a wife,’ Ruth had observed, grimacing. Even Hagar admitted that she no longer shaved her armpits since Omar Sharif had said in a television interview that he found a woman’s hairy armpits a turn-on. ‘Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop,’ Davy had said. He had run his fingertips up May’s leg from ankle to knee. With his eyes closed, as if reading braille. ‘You’ve got smooth legs.’ May had not been sure if that was a compliment, but it was certainly a turn-on. Since then she had not touched the stubble under her armpits. Mathilde had a thing about excess hair. Beards, moustaches, pubic hair. She had even shaved the expectant mothers so that after giving birth they were as smooth as inflatable dolls. May had been given a sleeveless nightgown by Leonce. Mathilde disapproved. She made May put on a bed jacket at visiting times. May protested because the wool itched, but it was no good. ‘Big girls keep their necks and shoulders covered,’ was Mathilde’s dictum. One hair had escaped her passion for pruning; it curled out of a mole located like a courtesan’s beauty spot under Mathilde’s left nostril. When Mathilde bent over her May had to exercise great self-control not to pluck it out. She was also troubled by the question whether or not Mathilde was aware that her nun’s face had a certain attraction, and if so, why she left that solitary hair like a lonely stalk in a field of stubble.
May has been so lost in thought that she realises too late that someone is banging on the door of the basement. Hagar is dragged away from the decisive climax of the baseball game. The lady from upstairs is at the door. Angry or upset. May cannot make out what is wrong. Hagar slams the door and strides over to the television to turn down the sound. ‘Always making a fuss!’ The lady from upstairs is palefaced and timid. If she is hanging out washing on the balcony and sees May in the garden she quickly ducks back inside. While she is chatting to the boy who does the gardening May has seen her peering through the blinds. Her husband does the shopping. He looks as though he can walk through walls. Thin and white, with everything sagging. An elderly couple that one would not suspect of outrageous behaviour. True, one mustn’t take a bath after ten in the evening because the water gurgles in the pipes. No cycles in the hall. No wet newspapers in the letterbox. No loud music on the Sabbath. And no pets of any kind: they belong out of doors. ‘They are difficult people,’ grumbles Hagar. Obviously her husband was not home when the lady upstairs was getting worked up over the noisy television. He comes later. ‘It was as if there was a war going on’, his wife had told him. He also wished to take the opportunity to say that no climbing plants must be trained up the walls. The vermin climb up the foliage like a ladder. His wife has found another salamander in the kitchen, and she was completely beside herself. ‘Salamanders are part of this country,’ growls Hagar. When May heard the faint ‘plop’ for the first time she did not know what it was, but Hagar immediately grabbed the broom. A frantic chase had ensued until May managed to trap the salamander under a newspaper and carry it outside in a rolled-up ball. ‘Careful, they bite!’ shouted Hagar. Ten minutes later May had seen a salamander sitting motionless on the bedroom ceiling. As though it had spirited itself in by magic. She slid under the sheets in the fervent hope that the creature would not parachute into bed. Between half-closed eyelids she saw Hagar looking from the salamander to her but feigned sleep. They both had good reason to pretend there was nothing hanging over their heads.
In a village in Flanders a five year-old girl had seen her father and grandfather shot. The men were taken to the main street with their fellow-villagers and made to run forward ten at a time. 1940. The first row of soldiers were on one knee, the second row stood behind them so that there was a double line of rifles to face. The men’s clogs had clattered on the cobbles. Some men staggered to their deaths with sprained ankles. The officer in command gave the order to fire and the same time dropped his raised arm. The men stumbled, fell on top of each other, crawled a few yards further. Before those watching could recover from the shock the next ten men were ordered off at the double. The few who refused were immediately shot in the back of the neck. The little girl had always sat on grandfather’s lap at table. He dipped his bread in lukewarm milk and fed her. In the large family, where everyone was busy, the old man and the youngest child had been inseparable. After the war the girl suffered nervous attacks. Loud voices startled her. She had an inexplicable fear of the stationmaster who gave the signal for the trains to leave with an orange-and-white disc. The village doctor said it would pass when the girl started her periods. The fears redoubled. She should marry as soon as possible, then. Next the woman became aggressive. A child would put things right. She completely ignored it, and the grandmother had to look after it. The houses, which had been built hurriedly after the war, had paper-thin walls. You could hear the neighbours arguing, and the woman could not stand it. The doctor kept telling her not to make a fuss over nothing. One evening there was a war film on TV. The family had not been watching, being frightened to death of such things. It was as if their neighbour was hard of hearing, the set was on so loud. ‘It was as if the tanks were thundering through the room,’ the grandmother was to testify later. And then there were those German commands. On the mantlepiece there was an antique iron decorated with a bunch of dried flowers. The woman had grabbed it, gone round the back to the house next door and smashed the neighbour’s skull in. The village doctor had written a note recommending her committal to a lunatic asylum. May remembers the modified heavy flat irons which were heated on the stove and later on the gas. Margarethe would spit on the sole-plate. If the drops of spittle sizzled, the iron was too hot. In the summer Margarethe wore a sleeveless jacket while she did the ironing. When she placed the iron on the linen it was as though her breasts swelled under the pressure of her arms. Margarethe had always grumbled while ironing. The smell of stale sweat released from the armpit of the shirt when it was heated particularly upset her. As though all her washing and scrubbing had been for nothing. The son of the village doctor had also become a doctor, but soon left for a developing country. ‘That one is even crazier than his father,’ Margarethe had said.
From The First Stone (De eerste steen, 1992)
By Monika van Paemel
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 1994