This a short story about World War II, the immigrant experience…and much more
Chapter 1. The teacher
Perhaps it is true that one’s conscience is like a songbird warbling high up in a tree. Though you cannot detect its form, its notes are clear and touch your soul with their pureness and you cannot walk by for weeping.
September of 1953 was a hot month in the city of Toronto. In fact, the second day of the month was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reaching 98 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat on that Labor Day weekend had me thinking that it did not seem to be a very auspicious time to open school doors or an auspicious moment to be a first-time teacher.
I had graduated from the Toronto Normal School earlier that same year. As far back as I could remember I had always loved the idea of becoming a teacher, of being with children and imparting to them knowledge, truth and fine ideals. But when I faced my mixed class of seventh and eighth graders that first week – a medley of twenty-seven faces, all wilting with heat in the muggy, crowded classroom – my courage and commitment somehow deteriorated into nervous tension. There were names to memorize, characters to unravel, and temperaments to discern. Not that the children were rowdy or disobedient; it was just that there were so many of them and so few of me.
Consequently, at the end of that initial week, I stood in front of the half-open classroom window gazing out at the silent playground after the students had been dismissed. Tired and not a little discouraged, I contemplated whether I should have opted for another vocation such as mechanic or traveling salesman. Drumming my fingers on the sill, and staring off into the horizon, I recalled the respect I’d had for teachers who had made an impact on my formative years. Mr. Kunstenaar, my history teacher, stood out in my memory. How that man had been able to tell stories!
Absently, I wiped beading drops of sweat off my upper lip.
Some boys had appeared on the playground. Though the weather was still hot and humid, they were running and yelling. There were four of them and the first was much younger than the rest. As they tore past, it became obvious that the boy in the lead was being pursued by the rest. The child was a good runner, but his small legs did not stand a chance against the longer legs of his opponents. By some providential quirk, if there is such a thing, the boy zigzagged back towards my window and, upon reaching it, turned, standing with his back against it. The boys stopped their chase and picked up clumps of dirt from the ground where they stood. They then began to pelt the boy with the dirt, one soft clump striking the top of his head and breaking into a hundred small grains of black on his crown.
Pity flooded my heart. Stepping forward to make myself clearly visible, I stood tall behind the boy. Though I did not think he saw me, his pursuers certainly did. Neither gesturing nor saying one word, I just stood quietly. And one by one the three boys opened their fists, dropped their missiles, and disappeared. I don’t know what the child thought of his attackers leaving. The back of his head pressed hard against my window. The hair I could almost touch was blond – very blond – a blond mixed with black. I had a déjà vu moment but could not place it. Then the boy turned and he smiled at me. It was a warm and radiant smile and in that instant I knew I had made the right decision about becoming a teacher.
The following Monday morning the principal asked if I could spare a moment to talk. “I’d like to take advantage of your bilingualism,” he said, by way of beginning the conversation, “of your ability to speak Dutch.”
“This year there are three children, children of Dutch immigrants,” he continued, “who are attending our school. They need help with their English. It occurred to me that you might be just the man to encourage them. Can I ask for your help in tutoring some of these students for a few hours each week if I provide some extra help in your classroom during that time?”
“I have no experience in tutoring,” I said.
“It’s just to see them through an initial awkward and difficult period,” he went on, almost as if he had not heard my objection, “You see, because of their lack of ability to speak English, they have been put back a year in school, and if they are able to become more proficient in English, perhaps they can be moved up to the grade level they should be in.”
To a certain degree, I felt cheated. It was clear to me that tutoring was something a teacher’s aide should be doing; it certainly did not seem to be work for someone like myself who had just studied hard to earn a degree. Besides that, wasn’t it obvious that these children would pick up English quickly enough by themselves, immersed as they were in the mainstream of school life?
The principal, sensing my hesitation, stood up and patted me on the shoulder. “Mr. Anders,” he said, “I assure you it would definitely help these children a great deal and it’s just a few hours every week.”
So, beginning immediately, every Tuesday and Thursday morning were set aside for instructing three children. From nine until recess, two sisters – eleven-year-old twins Tina and Tonnie DeGroot – were taught the rudiments of English. Following recess, the boy with the blond hair came in, the boy who had smiled at me.
Providence is a mixture of the wonderful, strange, and fearful. A truth wrapped up in seemingly discordant notes fell onto my heart when the child told me his name. “Ik heet Nico,” he said, “Nico Goudswaard, and ik ben zeven jaar oud.” (My name is Nico – Nico Goudswaard, and I am seven years old.)
Another vague déjà vu moment occurred. “Nico,” I repeated slowly, and again, “Nico.”
“Ja,” the boy replied.
I sat down rather weakly and he came and sat down opposite me.
“What is your name?” he asked.
I did not answer his query, instead asking him another question: “Who is your father, Nico?”
“Well,” the boy said, his clear eyes shining at me across the table, “that is a hard question to answer.” He looked down at the table for a moment as if thinking deeply. Then he looked up and smiled again. “I do have a father though.”
I did not know what to say to that and waited, for clearly the child was not finished. After thinking long and hard for another minute, hands folded on the brown tabletop, he finally added quietly, “Do you have to know who my father is to help me with English?”
I shook my head and grinned at him. “No, but I would really like to know. Can’t you tell me?”
“Well, you can’t see my father. Not the way that other children can see theirs.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Fathers are good,” he continued, “When I ran to the window last week, then I pretended that you were my father. I only pretended for a minute,” he quickly added, “because mother says that I must not do that – pretend that other people are my father.”
“But you said that you did have a father, … or don’t you?”
“Well, mother says that my father is God in heaven and that He will look out for me always, no matter where I am. I almost forgot that He was there when those boys were teasing me, but then I saw you and thought that…”
He stopped abruptly.
“How is your mother?” Any adult would have looked at me strangely for asking such a personal question on such short acquaintance. But no one alive could have understood the absurdity of this present-day providence – even I did not understand it – this providence of me sitting here with the child of a girl I had once known when I was a young boy.
“She is fine.” Nico had no trouble answering familiarities.
“Do you live close to the school?”
He nodded. “Yes, I do. It only takes me fifteen minutes to walk to school.”
Our whole conversation had taken place in Dutch. I took out a reader at this point and had him sound out simple words to ascertain his command of the English language. His English was actually better than that of the twin girls. But my mind wandered continually as Nico was sounding out his words – wandered back to days long gone by. And when Nico left at lunch hour, I stayed behind in the small study room and thought – indeed, could not stop thinking – about the past.
There is no accusation that tastes as bitter as self-reproach. Others can accuse – often unjustly and unfairly – and, in those cases, the accused can rest in knowing they are innocent. But people who recognize the secret dealings of their own hearts repeatedly cringe in shame and regret. And so it was with me and I began remembering.
Chapter 2. The student
“The White Book of Sarnen contains the earliest surviving record of the William Tell story.” The speaker was Jaap Kunstenaar, and I was among the children he was addressing.
We were in school, if you could call it school, for there was no bell, no principal, no heat, no recess, and certainly no list of subjects that we had to follow. There were only some thirty children or so huddled in desks, students so skinny that ribs protruded and elbows jutted out of our sweaters. We varied in age from eight to fifteen, with myself, 16-year-old Nico Anders, the oldest boy there. It was spring, 1945, following on the heels of a cold, cold winter. Jaap Kunstenaar was a retired teacher and nearing three score and ten years of age. He had offered to feed some history to the youth of our town two afternoons a week. We came not because our parents forced us to come, but because there was not much else to do, and because, somehow, listening to Jaap Kunstenaar talk helped us forget the hunger pains in our bellies as we lived the heroic tales of the past.
I well remember the day that Mr. Kunstenaar told the story of William Tell for it was a day that marked a changing point in my life.
“The Book of Sarnen was accidentally discovered in 1856, and is believed to be a copy of a much older manuscript written in 1426.” Mr. Kunstenaar rubbed his thin and blueing hands together. The color of his hands indicated both the coldness of the room, in which the pot-bellied stove had neither wood to burn nor warmth to throw, and his venerable age. Perhaps that’s why he told history so well, because he himself was almost a part of it.
“More than 700 years ago,” Mr. Kunstenaar began, and we all listened, already fascinated because of the intensity of his baritone voice.
“More than 700 years ago,” he repeated, “a local farmer and well-known hunter hailing from the canton of Uri, strode through the market square of Altdorf. A crossbow hung over his shoulder. In all of the surrounding cantons there was no one who could climb mountains as sure-footed and as quickly as could this man, William Tell, and there was no one as skilled in the use of a crossbow.”
The mention of a bow made me even more attentive. I knew how to use a bow and arrow myself. My father had taught me how to aim carefully, and how to unfailingly hit the mark, from the time I was old enough to hold a bow. “My father taught me and I teach you,” he told me. “And, God willing,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes, “you will someday teach your son.” We hunted rabbits and quail together, my father and I, and grandfather had shown me how to skin the rabbits and how to pluck the quail.
Mr. Kunstenaar continued: “Altdorf was one of the many small settlements in the area which we now call Switzerland. Its market square was no doubt very similar to the market square we have in town here. People strolled through it, they conducted business there, and they sat on the benches erected along its sides. But the freedom of walking through the square had been curtailed. This was because the town of Altdorf, as well as the surrounding cantons, was occupied at that time, even as we are occupied today, by an enemy. For Switzerland at the time of William Tell in the early 1300s, the enemy was Austria. Today, for Holland in this year of our Lord, 1945, it is Germany.”
He paused dramatically and we all breathed deeply, anticipating action before he continued. And why shouldn’t we have? Stories that paralleled our situation were stories that most gripped our hearts. These were stories with which we could empathize. For example, tales about the Spaniards occupying our country during the Reformation times fascinated us, and episodes of heroism encouraged us. Mr. Jaap Kunstenaar was a wonderful well of information, and we leaned forward in our desks listening eagerly, forgetting for a while our worries, aches and trials.
“The enemy agent for the Hapsburg Duke of Austria was a bailiff by the name of Hermann Gessler. He was the Austrian Duke’s henchman. Strangely enough, Hermann Gessler sounds ominously like Hermann Goering, who, as you all know, is Hitler’s henchman.”
We all nodded vigorously for we were very familiar with the name of Hermann Goering, a top Nazi, and a hater of the Jews.
“Gessler was a proud man, a cruel man, and one who sadistically punished the Swiss people without reason. One day, overcome with pride, he placed his hat on a pole in the center of the Altdorf square and announced that anyone passing this hat would have to bow to it, on pain of death. Shortly after this announcement, William Tell, a patriotic Swiss man and one not easily frightened, strode through the square. He refused to obey Gessler’s ridiculous command, nonchalantly passing by the cap, totally ignoring it. And he passed by it walking upright, holding the hand of his young son, Walter.”
We all laughed, the younger as well as the older children. We were enormously pleased that William Tell had not saluted the cap, for it seemed so obvious that to salute a hat was extremely foolish. Who would do such a thing? Our laughter was shrill, almost as if we had forgotten how to do it, but we were hungry you see, and our voices had grown weak because of the severe lack of food. I remember thinking that the red ribbon in the hair of the orphan girl Nienke Jongsma in front of me looked good enough to eat. And I remember thinking at the same time of the potatoes in Friesland, where Nienke had come from, potatoes which lay rotting but which were not allowed to be sent from that province to the other western provinces desperately in need of food. All the while, during that thought, Tom Jansen sitting next to me shook with mirth. And Ina De Wit in front of Tom put her hand in front of her mouth to hide squeaky giggles. And fifteen-year-old Lieneke, my good friend Lieneke, with the beautiful blond braids, whom I loved with all the innocent passion of my teenage heart, had a wide grin on her face, showing all her pretty white teeth. Strange that such a sweet and pretty girl was the daughter of a suspected Nazi sympathizer.
Mr. Kunstenaar waited until we settled down before he continued.
“Loitering nearby in the center of the square were several guardsmen. When these guardsmen noticed that William Tell had not saluted Gessler’s hat, they immediately arrested him. Shortly afterwards Gessler himself rode into the square surrounded by his hunting party. ‘Why is this man in custody? And who is he?’ Gessler demanded from the great height of his white stallion. ‘He refused to salute your cap,’ the soldiers answered, ‘and his name is William Tell, a fellow who by all accounts, seems to be a remarkable marksman – one who can shoot a straight arrow at a great distance and not miss his target.’ Gessler remained quiet and thoughtful for a few moments. Small Walter, Tell’s son and proud of it, began to boast and his words rang through the square, stopping in front of Gessler on his high horse. ‘My father,’ he called out in his childish voice, interpreting the soldiers’ claim in his own words, ‘can shoot an apple from a tree at a hundred yards!’ Gessler sneered, sneered from his high perch on the horse, sneered at the boy, and sneered at all the bystanders. ‘Can he indeed?’ he scoffed, ‘Well then he shall prove his skill to us here. Place an apple on the boy’s head. And we shall see if he never misses.'”
The mention of an apple brought saliva to my dry mouth – I almost drooled. If I had been in the place of Walter Tell, with the apple placed on my head, I would have taken it off and crunched into it for one bite, just one bite. I could almost taste it – a far better taste than that of the sugar beets that the town council was beginning to ration out sparingly to the families in town. We had heard of food packages being dropped out of planes flying over Amsterdam, but we had received no such luxuries.
“Walter was led to a tree at the far end of the square, and an apple was placed on his head. Quite a crowd had gathered in the square by this time. Everyone was horrified. Outwardly calm, William Tell took the crossbow from his shoulder and fitted an arrow to his bow. Walter stood very still and appeared not to be afraid. The child had unconditional faith in his father’s skill. William Tell took careful aim. The arrow left the shaft, and whistled through the air, finding its mark in the center of the apple splitting it into two parts.”
We all sighed. And then Mr. Kunstenaar quoted an old Northumbrian English ballad. He quoted it with great emotion and I remember it still.
I have a son seven years old;
He is to me full dear;
I will tie him to a stake –
All shall see him that be here –
And lay an apple upon his head,
And go six paces him fro.
And I myself with a broad arrowe
Shall cleave the apple in towe.
For a moment afterwards it was quiet – the class all picturing the cleft apple lying on the ground in front of the boy Walter, who, no doubt, had a huge grin on his face.
“William Tell sprinted towards his son, and as he did so a second arrow fell from his coat. Gessler, puzzled, asked him why this second arrow was necessary. And Tell replied: ‘That second arrow was for you, if the first had wounded my boy.'”
We were all delighted with Tell’s bravery and gleefully visualized the look of helpless anger on Gessler’s face.
Jaap Kunstenaar went on: “A conversation reported between a Swiss diplomat and a German in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War, went thus. The German said, ‘You Swiss are so proud of your 500,000 men militia. But what will you do if a 1,000,000 man German army comes marching across your border?’ The Swiss diplomat calmly replied, ‘That’s easy. Each of us will shoot twice and go home.'”
We roared with laughter, at which point Nienke Jongsma fainted and Mr. Kunstenaar and some of the older girls did everything they could to revive her. It took some time, but after she was sitting up again, pale and hollow-eyed (as indeed we all were), Mr. Kunstenaar decided that it was time to go home.
“What happened to William Tell after that?” Jan Bezem asked as we filed out into the hall and from there into the street.
“He led a rebellion against the invaders.”
“Did he win?”
“Yes,” Mr. Kunstenaar smiled and patted Jan on the head, “and I’ll tell you about that some other time.”
Chapter 3. The pilot
While the other students went straight home, I only passed by our house long enough to pick up an old baby carriage from our shed. My father, who would visit us once a week or less and always under the cover of darkness, had instructed me to walk to Farmer Dikkens after four o’clock. It was already close to four when I picked up the carriage. Inside it, hidden in a false bottom, were two packages of cigarettes and two chocolate bars, placed there by my father to be used in bargaining for some wheat and potatoes. Farmers didn’t take kindly to people coming anymore. There wasn’t much left of anything for people to barter with. But father had said that Farmer Dikkens would be expecting me. So I went, albeit reluctantly, because I knew that my bargaining powers were less than spectacular.
We lived on the east edge of town. I lived there with my father, when he was home, and with my grandfather. My mother had died the first year of the war and I had no siblings. There were just the three of us. We had no other living relatives as both my father and mother had been only children. At this time we also had living with us a Canadian pilot who had shown up a few weeks earlier with a bad burn to his right arm, as well as a cut in his right leg. We doctored him as best we could. His mother was from Holland, so he spoke a decent amount of Dutch, and consequently our communication was good. Sometimes he stayed with father in his hiding place, and sometimes he came to the house. He was the one who had given us the cigarettes and the chocolate.
“Nico,” father had said, “these cigarettes may very well be the saving of our lives; God-given they are.”
So I prayed before I came to the farm. “Dear God,” I said, not out loud but within my heart, “please let Farmer Dikkens be generous so that I can come home with some food for grandfather.”
It was quiet outside. The fields were bare and during my half hour or so of walking, I saw only one German soldier and he paid no heed to me, a skinny boy pushing a baby carriage. The Germans, very edgy now that the end of the war was coming, had dug holes the size of small rooms by the side of the road. In case of an air attack, they would have somewhere to hide. These holes appeared like graves to me, although had a plane appeared overhead I would have jumped into one without any hesitation. My walk that late afternoon was a lonely trek and I felt the atmosphere heavy with danger.
Miraculously, Farmer Dikkens, a big man with a pot-belly and large jowls, was agreeable. An admiring smile on his small lips, he held the cigarette packages in his hand, turning them over and over, in his fleshy hands.
“What do you want for them?”
“What are you willing to give?” I inwardly congratulated myself on this answer.
“Fifteen pounds of wheat.”
“I think not,” I answered, “there are others who will…”
He did not let me finish. “All right, then, twenty-five pounds and that’s my final offer.”
Sliding my hand into one of my pockets, I produced one of the chocolate bars and put it on top of the cigarette packages in his hands, saying nothing. He studied me with piercing eyes, suddenly wary. “You’re not in cahoots with the Germans, are you?”
“You know my father,” I answered, “how can you ask such a thing.”
In the end he gave me thirty pounds of wheat and fifteen pounds of potatoes. His wife, it turned out, had been addicted to chocolate before the war and would be very pleased with the treat.
I walked back home as quickly as I could. It was a going against the wind and the carriage wheels, which had no rubber rims, kept digging into the many ruts in the road. There was a gnawing worry within me. Grandfather had been so tired lately. And so very thin. He rarely got up out of his chair anymore although sometimes he surprised me.
Pushing the carriage past an abandoned house, I noticed some scrap pieces of wood by its door. Our woodstove had not been burning this last month. Wood was very scarce. One night, months ago, people had cut down many of the trees lining the center road in town. I’d heard that one man who had no axe had fanatically hugged a tree tearfully claiming it as his own, until a neighbor had lent him an axe with the promise that he might share some of its wood. Others had hung on low-lying branches, breaking them off, pulling the branches behind them to their homes. There was no brushwood left close to the town. Out in the country there were still woods. But few dared to go for these trees because the Germans had issued an order after that night, saying that anyone caught cutting down any more lumber would be arrested.
Leaving the carriage on the road, I ran up to the entrance of the abandoned house. Picking up the scrap pieces, I decided there was just enough wood for one good fire – a fire that would surely cheer grandfather’s bones tonight. As well, I thought I would be able to concoct a meal that would taste better than the pancakes I had been making out of mashed tulip bulbs and other bits of leftover food. And the remaining chocolate bar still stashed in my pocket could be our dessert.
In rather high spirits, I pushed the carriage back into our shed. Who knew but that the war would be over next week. I prayed again, quietly inside my heart, “Thank you, Lord, for this food. Thank you, Lord, for this bit of wood.”
Leaving the wood in the shed, I carried the potatoes under one arm and the bag of wheat under the other. When I pushed open the front door, it creaked horribly. One of the first things I would do after the war was oil its hinges. No familiar call of welcome hailed me from the livingroom. Perhaps grandfather was sleeping. He slept much and sometimes, or actually very often, was rather befuddled about the situation we were in. I could see his head resting sideways against the back of the chair. It faced the east window where he could look out on the fields.
“Grandfather,” I called, but there was no answer.
I walked through to the kitchen and deposited my bargaining trophies on the counter. Then I walked back into the livingroom, approaching to the edge of the chair.
“Napping, are we?” I joked, “Sleeping while your favorite grandson is bringing you not only a good supper but also a warm-bellied stove for the evening.”
Moortje, our black cat, was sitting on his lap. We never fed him anymore as there was no food. Although thin, the animal was wiry and did an admirable job catching mice and rats on his nightly raids. Moortje was inordinately fond of grandfather. No wonder, for the black creature received innumerable scratches behind his ears, under his jaw and along his furry back.
As I came closer, Moortje stood up and began to meow, at the same time licking the top of grandfather’s hand – a hand, I now noted, that hung slack over the edge of the chair. Suddenly afraid, I pushed the cat onto the floor and nudged the still figure. But even as I put out my hand, I knew. I knew that my grandfather had died before I could make the room warm, before I could boil the potatoes, and before I could make some sort of pancakes out of the wheat. Undeterred by my gesture, the cat jumped back onto grandfather’s lap and began butting his black head against the unmoving chest. I knelt down on the floor in front of the chair, resting my head on the still lap. The cat half-sat on my head and began purring. I vaguely took in the familiar smell of grandfather’s pipe, for even though it had been years since he had last smoked the odor of it permeated his clothes. I did not weep, but was overcome with weariness so great that all my limbs felt as if they had turned to jelly.
I sat there for an hour or more – I don’t know quite how long. But eventually I heard the front door creak open. Then there were footsteps and Paul came into the room. Paul was the Canadian pilot.
“Nico?” His voice showed his surprise at seeing me on my knees with my head in grandfather’s lap.
I stirred but very slightly. “Yes,” I answered softly.
“Nico,” he repeated, and there was something in his voice that made me raise my head and look at him.
“What is it?”
“Your father,” he answered, and then there was a catch in his voice that gripped my heart with fear.
“My father?” Standing up I repeated his words mechanically. The cat jumped to the ground and ran past Paul’s legs. A minute later we could hear the door creak – Moortje had the uncanny ability to somehow paw it open on her own. All the while Paul stood still and I knew again, for the second time within a few hours, that something devastating was going to occur.
“Is your grandfather sleeping?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” I answered, reasoning to myself that he was asleep, for weren’t the dead asleep according to the Bible?
“Somehow,” our Canadian pilot continued, beckoning me over to the kitchen where he was heading, “somehow the Nazis became aware of your father’s hiding place in the woods.”
I trailed him to the kitchen, not able to say anything.
He continued, speaking more slowly, leaning his left arm on the counter next to the potatoes and the wheat, his voice low and showing no emotion, “This afternoon they raided it and your father…”
“My father,” I regurgitated, feeling surreal and hearing my words as if someone else had said them.
“He was killed, Nico.”
“No one knew where he was hiding,” I protested then, “no one at all. There was just grandfather and myself who knew.”
But within me I was aware that there was another person. And my heart pounded with the knowledge that I had confided in one other person where my father was hiding and that person was Lieneke Goudswaard – Lieneke with the blond, honey-colored braids. I stared at Paul. His eyes were full of compassion.
“We’ll not wake your grandfather,” he said, “not yet, anyway.”
“But he,” I stuttered, “he is dead too, Paul. He is dead too.” A half-scream, half-groan erupted from my heart and from my belly and Paul’s arms closed around me until I stopped. I was quiet afterward but could speak no words; neither could I weep. A great weariness overtook me again as I gazed at grandfather sitting in his chair, head tilted to one side while the potatoes and the wheat stood upright on the kitchen counter. And then things went black.
Chapter 4. The judge
I awoke on my bed later that evening, and I awoke because the door creaked. My head was fuzzy and it was hard to immediately remember what had happened. But the realization of death, loneliness and betrayal returned full force as soon as I sat up. Candlelight shone in from the livingroom. Swinging my feet over the edge of the bed, I peered through the small hall. I could just make out the figures of three men standing in the livingroom, one of them holding a candle, standing around grandfather’s chair. They were Piet Winter, Hugo Enkel and Klaas Boks – all part of father’s team, all part of the underground. I must have made some sort of noise, because all three simultaneously turned to find me looking at them.
“Ah, Nico,” said Piet, “I’m sorry, son. I’m deeply sorry about your father and,” he added, “your grandfather.”
The others murmured agreement and I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“We’re going to bury your father tonight,” Piet went on, “and we thought perhaps it might be a good thing if we buried your grandfather and your father next to one another.”
I nodded again. Klaas, a big man, lifted grandfather’s body out of the chair and began carrying it towards the front door. It could not have been a difficult task for him because grandfather was light as air, so thin he had become.
“Where,” I asked, “will you bury them?”
“In the church cemetery, next to your mother,” Piet said, “we’ve already had some men dig the holes. We can’t wait, Nico, because the liberation is coming closer each day and the Germans are getting so nervous that we’re not sure what they’ll do. But we’re pretty certain they won’t take the time to dig up graves. Do you want to come?”
I walked towards him rather unsteadily. “Let me come with you afterwards too, Piet,” I pleaded, “I’ve got nothing left here.”
He said nothing, but held out his hand and I took it – me, a grown boy of sixteen years, hanging on to someone as if I were a toddler.
When we reached the churchyard several people emerged from their hiding places behind some of the larger tombstones. One of them was the dominee. No one spoke. As one body, we all moved forward silently towards the west side of the church. This was where my mother was buried. Wasn’t it just last week that I had visited her grave with my father? And now, in the moonlight, I could see that two yawning hollows had been dug next to it. I watched silently as my father’s body and my grandfather’s body were lowered into those black mouths. There had been no wood for coffins for a long time now. “There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say enough! The grave…” Like arrows from the bow of a hunter, the words from Proverbs found their mark straight into my heart and a great anger overcame me so that I turned away from the small group bunched around the gravesite and ran blindly away between the markers. Reaching the metal gate, I lifted the latch eventually finding my way home. And all the while I was thinking about what I would do next, all the while I was scheming how I could avenge…and I did not leave the end up to God.
Paul came to the house some time later. He always came and went; I did not know the full extent of how involved he was with the underground. As I lay in bed, feigning sleep, I could feel him bend over my still form. He whispered my name but I didn’t answer. Then he went to my grandfather’s room and I knew he would sleep there for the night. But I did not sleep.
Even before the morning light touched the horizon, I was up and into my clothes. My bow and arrows were stashed away in the shed under an old wheelbarrow. I checked them carefully before I headed in the direction of Lieneke’s house. It had rained during the night. Puddles lined the road but there was a sweet south wind – a warm wind – and I thought of how grandfather would have enjoyed this day. He might even have sat behind the house if the sun proved to be warm enough.
No one was about. Certainly a year ago, or even a half a year ago, I couldn’t have walked out as freely as I did now or as I had done yesterday on my way to farmer Dikkens. The Germans badly needed manpower so they had been randomly conscripting men and young boys off the street. But the war was almost over now. Or so it was said, and Germans could be seen leaving town. Every day we saw small groups of soldiers walking through our streets, heading northeast. No matter though, during this particular pre-morning hour there was quiet and not a soul was about.
Lieneke lived on the opposite edge of the town and upon reaching her home I stood for a long moment under the window that I knew held her bedroom. Then, taking the few pebbles I had collected from the roadside, I began to toss them gently and steadily, hitting her pane with a soft ping each time. It would not do to waken her father who would not take kindly to seeing me. Before long the curtains parted slightly to silhouette Lieneke’s form. She opened the window and whispered. “Is that you, Nico?”
“Yes,” I answered, making my voice bland, giving away none of the emotion that roiled around inside me.
“What is it?”
“I’m going for a walk. Will you come?”
She was silent, and for a few moments I was afraid that she would not come. We had often gone on walks together, she and I, and had been able to talk about many things. What these things were, I can’t recall now – only that our rapport had been excellent. The reality of the bow and arrow under the wheelbarrow in the shed lay heavy on my heart. I heard birds begin to sing, only just now starting to wake.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Nico. Wait by the road.”
I breathed in deeply. She would come then. Slowly I sauntered back to the road. Spring, though late, had come and almost gone. I could smell it. Ragged robins, marjoram, and wild balsam flowered, flowered while people died.
“Here I am, Nico.” She had come up behind me so softly that I was startled.
“Where shall we go for a walk?”
I did not answer but began to lead the way back in the direction of my house.
“I’m sorry about your father and grandfather, Nico.”
There was something within me, something that pushed all other emotions away except for an overriding sense of … of something I did not know how to define. Lieneke’s hand gently stole into mine. It was a very thin hand and I could feel the bones.
“I am truly sorry, Nico,” she repeated.
No response found its way to my lips and my right hand roughly pushed her hand away. She did not seem overly hurt by the gesture, supposing that my bereavement entitled me to rudeness. Blackbirds whistled their songs in fields, mingling their voices with those of finches. A lark rose up high above our heads, strong and proud, flying straight up to heaven. It was almost morning – almost. We walked without speaking for a long while, and eventually came to my house. I turned in, walking towards the shed.
“What are we going to do, Nico?”
I said nothing, simply holding the door open for her. She slipped into the semi-darkness of the interior and sat down on a broken chair propped up against the east wall. The earliest sunrays faintly fell through the cracks in the wall, shining on her blond braids. I noticed that she had not taken the time to comb her hair. It was slightly disheveled, with strands escaping from the thick plaits. But it did not look unkempt to me, rather it gave her an aura of being totally caught up in my welfare. I was not happy with that thought and forced myself to visualize my father being lowered into his grave. I sat down as well, on the dirt floor straight across from her, and took a deep breath.
“Someone,” I began in a neutral voice, “betrayed my father. Someone informed the police where my father was hiding.”
She nodded, her blue eyes fixed steadfastly on my face.
“There was no one,” I continued, “no one except myself, my grandfather and you, who knew where he was hiding.”
Her eyes became clouded, as tears formed. I could see them pooling, then overflowing, and finally falling down her cheeks.
“Oh, Nico,” she whispered, “you don’t think that I…”
“It is a fact,” I said, “that there is no one else who knew.”
She said nothing but just looked at me. Tears ran down her face. I wanted a denial, a strong denial, and hot anger flooded my being.
“You,” I pushed out vehemently, “You’re a traitor, just like your father! You wicked girl!”
I stood up then, balling my hands into fists. Backing out through the shed door, I knelt down on the wet ground and picked up a pile of dirt. Packing it into a ball, I stomped back in. Lieneke still sat in the same spot. She hadn’t moved. It was as if she were frozen. I hesitated but only for a moment. Slowly coming up to her, never taking my eyes of her face, I heavily deposited the huge clump of dirt on top of her head. Part of it oozed down, down past the honey-colored hair, onto her cheeks, mingling with the tears; but most of it stayed on top of the blond pile of hair. Walking backwards, I took my bow and arrow from under the overturned wheelbarrow. Fitting the arrow into the shaft, I aimed at the apple of dirt on Lieneke’s head.
“Why did you tell them?” I cried the words in agony.
My fingers trembled. She did not contradict me but sat so still that she could have been a painting. The sound of loud, raucous laughter coming down the road startled me – startled me so that my fingers let go of the arrow. It whistled and struck Lieneke’s left cheek, narrowly missing her eye. She flinched and her hands flew up to her face at the same time as the door behind me opened revealing Paul.
“Nico! What are you doing?”
I could not answer. For suddenly it was as if the dam of grief within me had burst its bounds and the waters swept me away so that I no longer had any control over my body. Paul was at Lieneke’s side in an instant, speaking as he moved.
“There is a German patrol coming down the road. I do believe they’re totally tipsy. But neither of us had better be here if they decide to check on the house, or search this shed.”
“Run! You must run!” The words were Lieneke’s and woodenly through my tears I saw that she had stood up. Blood trickled down her left cheek even as she spoke. What had I done?
“I think you’re all right,” Paul said, addressing Lieneke, and then coming for me, he added, “Nico, we have to make a run for it. Those Germans will shoot us on sight.”
“But what about…?” My words slurred and I could not stop looking at the blood running down Lieneke’s face.
“I will be fine.” She spoke the words almost formally, the wet dirt on her head continuing to seep downwards to mingle with the blood on her left cheek. “As you know, most of the Germans in town are acquainted with my father.”
She lifted one of her hands in a mock salute, a hand wet with her own blood as she added, “So you need not worry about me at all.”
Rooted in my spot, Paul had to push me alongside him towards the shed door, talking to Lieneke as he did so.
“Go to the house and wash that wound,” he instructed, looking at her over his shoulder, “Don’t let any of that dirt infect it.”
Opening the door, and peering around the corner, he next pulled me out with him and we began our escape. Our house was built on a slope and the field behind it curved downwards towards a small stream. Even now I remember the shouting, the loud voices calling us to halt. We did not halt. Miraculously the shots that were fired missed us. Slipping and sliding, we reached the water, and all the while Paul dragged me behind himself. He dragged me until I lost consciousness. It was then that he carried me.
When I awoke, I was lying on a cot in a small room. Paul was sitting at a table, as were some other men. I recognized Piet Winter and Klaas Boks, but there were others I did not know. Shifting slightly, the movement alerted them to the fact that I was awake. Paul stood up and sat on the edge of the cot.
“So how do you feel?”
“Where am I?”
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re safe.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Well, you’ve been sleeping for about two days now.”
He nodded and smiled. I was struggling to remember everything that had happened and closed my eyes at the immensity of the memories that hit me. My father and grandfather were gone. There was no one at all now except for Lieneke and she…
“How is…?” But I could not bring myself to say her name out loud, and repeated, “How is…?”
“First I want to tell you that we know who it was who told the police where your father was,” Paul said in a low voice.
“Who was it?”
“It was your grandfather.” Paul uttered the sentence softly. He knew the words would hurt. The men at the table had gone back to playing cards, to speaking quietly among themselves.
“How could he? How could grandfather?”
“He didn’t mean to. The Gestapo came to your house that afternoon. Only they were not dressed like officers. They were dressed like ordinary folks. They questioned your grandfather and led him to believe that they were loyal Dutch citizens and that they were friends. They promised to bring some food for your grandfather and you if he would only tell them where his son was. They said they had an urgent message for your father from the queen.”
“Yes, and your grandfather believed it, and was more than willing to point them in the direction of your father’s hiding spot.” Paul stopped for a moment and eyed me compassionately before he continued. “You’re grandfather was suffering from aging, Nico, and did not quite know what he was doing or saying the last while. Surely you know that.”
I did know it. I had seen him talk out loud to the cat as if she was my mother. And I also recalled that he had told me only a week ago that Prime Minister Gerbrandy had come to call, asking for his help in fighting the Nazis.
“How do you know for a fact that he really told them?” I asked the question with a sigh and moved my feet under the thin blanket covering my form.
“Because one of the German officers told Hendrik Jansen. The officer thought it was a huge joke. Hendrik is one of our men, but the officer didn’t know that.”
I knew Hendrik Jansen. He was Tom’s father and I’d gone to school with Tom for a long time.
“So it was not Lieneke?”
Paul shook his head. “No, Nico, it wasn’t her at all.
“How is she? Is she hurt very badly?”
He replied rather indirectly, and I vaguely sensed that he was keeping something back. “The wound on her cheek was not very bad, just a scratch really.”
I sighed again, partly in relief this time, but when I wanted to get up, dizziness overtook me. Paul pushed me down. “Sleep, Nico. Sleep.”
Chapter 5. The substitute
Two weeks later the war was over. So was my life as I had known it. Our house had been burned down to the ground. There was nothing left. There were only the three graves in the cemetery and I could not bed down there for the rest of my life. But I had no other family except for those three. It was Paul who provided me with a solution of what I ought to do.
“Come back to Canada with me, Nico.”
“Come back with you?”
“Yes,” he said with a warm smile on his face, “my mother and father would love you. After all, it was your family, your father and grandfather and yourself, who saved my life.”
I talked with the dominee, and with Jaap Kunstenaar, both of whom encouraged me to accept Paul’s offer and go with him to Canada. I tried very hard to see Lieneke, but every time I knocked on the door of her home, no one answered. The windows had been boarded up and the property appeared untended, unkept. The neighbors raised their eyebrows when I asked them about Lieneke and would tell me nothing. Neither was dominee or Jaap Kunstenaar able to relate anything to me as to the whereabouts of the family Goudswaard. I was ashamed to tell anyone what I had done to Lieneke the day after my father and my grandfather had died – Paul was the only one who knew. For all intents and purposes then, it was as if that whole episode, together with the Goudzwaard family, had disappeared from the face of the earth. And so I left my village without saying goodbye to someone who had never shown me anything but kindness.
But now here was the mystery. Lieneke was in Canada – not only that – but she was in Canada with a child. That child was seven years old, born the year after the war was over, so he had been conceived during the war. Echoing, loud laughter in the hallway reminded me keenly of the loud, raucous, crowing laughter of the drunk soldiers coming down the road – coming down the road that morning when the birds had just begun to sing. And it came to me that Lieneke had offered herself as a substitute – offered herself so that Paul and I could live. I groaned out loud.
Someone knocked at the door. Still absorbed in the past, I stood up and opened it. Little Nico Goudswaard faced me, or was it Lieneke? His grin sang at me. “I came back because you forgot to tell me your name.”
“Nico,” I answered, “my name is Nico, just like yours. And,” I added, “I think that I would like to ask your mother…”
I didn’t finish the sentence. I couldn’t because I was weeping.
This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue under the title “I Have A Sonne Seven Years Old; He is to me full deere…” Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books including “Katherina, Katherina,” a novel taking place in the time of Martin Luther. You can read a review here.
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