A few years after the war, a Jewish lady moved in between the Kistjes and the Gelders. None of us remember her very clearly, but the words used in conversation still itch. Sunken eyes, Like she rubs them with coffee grinds, Vera Gelder once said. She was only sixteen at the time and wore her yellow woollen skirt tight at the waist. Like no one’s ever taught her about hair, said Hetty Kistjes, her tea biscuit crumbling. Through Hetty’s vitrine we watched the Jewish lady walk a quick path down the street and nodded over this fact: her hair was pulled back into a tight bun but half of it still escaped, puffed around her face. Rieneke, whose brother-in-law was a dentist, swore that the Jewish lady had five gold stumps for molars, that she kept them hidden through the war. Rieneke’s mother, who was nice enough, said, Oh I just wish she’d let me fix those hems.
We overheard the younger kids talking about how her house smelled like brine, how they held their breath when passing. We overheard the older ones laughing, their voices just about broken, asking each other Did you break that window? No? Who did? Joost? Berend? What a king, what a gozer, what a—
Language, we’d tell them, sharp like a doorstop in their conversation. We were drying off our plates and our glasses and our little babies’ bottoms with towels and towels. We could be forgiven for this. Those were tough years, after the war, and we could be forgiven for jerking ourselves around her, trying to settle, trying to figure out why here, why us, because there’d never been any Jews here, not this far up north, and surely she’d be much better suited for one of the bigger cities, south, where we’d heard there’s Catholics who would welcome just about anyone into their homes and their temples and their beds and into the warmth of their breasts. Our husbands agreed, did so with Hmm, reading their papers through the smoke of their pipes and we could be forgiven, really.
It was a very cold winter, that year.
We weren’t in the habit of extravagance for the season of Christ but we discussed it all the same: at Petra Kistjes’ round dinner table, going down a list of names and making an inventory of what each of us could contribute. Doilies and canned beans. Bunting and towels and towels. An old clock ticked loudly in the room and even louder than that was the music from the house next door, where the Jewish lady lived. A dampened record that was played over, and over, and again for the good hour we spent there. None of us said a word of it but we clicked our spoons to the lips of our cups to show how we felt about it. Closed the tin box of biscuits just the same. Arms hooked together and heels roughing against cobblestones, we walked down the street. We delivered slips of paper asking the people of the neighbourhood for candles to be lit on windowsills during the days leading up to Christmas. A gesture, the letter said, for our fallen loved ones.
You would not believe! Hetty said, two days later, all of us sitting around her table. She was flustered, crumbled a biscuit over her tea. The Jewish lady had come to her house in indoor shoes and without a coat, the paper in hand and saying Sorry, saying that she didn’t have any candles to light. Nouja! Hetty lowered her voice, I see her lighting candles every week’s end, how do you mean you don’t have any candles?
And, on the same breath, Talking about waste. Hetty said waste in the way it means sin. She inhaled a few crumbs and began coughing, took a long time to calm down. We thumped her back, gave her water, nodded and agreed.
That Friday when the Jewish lady’s window lit up with the stuttering glow of candlelight we whispered to each other, The durf! Elbows hooked together, heels neat on the sidewalk. The chutzpah! one of us said, the word gurgled angry and then fell still—surprised at herself. We all looked at each other and then away.
Language, we whispered at her, uncoupling our arms from hers. She trailed behind for a while wondering where she’d learned the word, fingers at her lips. Why had it crawled out of her just then, just so.
The snow had started early in the month and let up halfway, turned into drizzle which turned the streets into grey sleet. It wet our ankles and made us tiptoe from fireplace to fireplace, made us roll off our stockings and heat our blue-knuckled feet by the hearth. Two days to Christmas the weather dropped and the night froze over as though startled into it—cracking the lake into ice, hushing the birds at dawn. Quiet, everything was, save for the pit-pat of snow falling on more snow. Our children spent the day making the snow into mud, screaming at cold hands shoved up shirts, down pants. The evening they spent wrapped in towels and towels, melting by the fire as outside a new snowfall worked hard to undo the damage done. We had our hands full. One of our daughters could not stop crying over one of our sons, whose fingers brushed her breast when he pushed a snowball down her dress.
But it was toch gewoon een ongelukje, we said, A little accident. He didn’t mean to, my treasure, why are you crying?
I don’t know why I’m crying, our daughter said, crying. I don’t know why I’m crying.
That night our husbands curled close to us, pushed our nightgowns up with cold hands. They warmed their fingers in our mouths, hooked over our lips, our tongues. We were quiet, and they were quiet, so we could all hear the snow whisper-falling onto streetlights and onto itself.
On Christmas night the Jewish lady stumbled out of her front door and into the snow, shouting and weeping in nothing but a shift and the skin God gave her. The whole town was at church on that day of Our Lord and so were we. The mulled wine from before still warmed us low in our bellies and we sang, eyes watering over at the miracle of us and the gift of our sons chanting along from the full of their breasts. We have taught them well, we thought then. We could be forgiven.
Vera Gelder left earlier than her mother, claiming fatigue. And her mother, one of us, went with her, claiming to not trust the notion of fatigue nor the boy with the motorbike from the farm down the Ijssel, who seemed drawn to the yellow of her daughter’s skirt. It was the two of them who found the Jewish lady heaving in the middle of the street, freezing—her hair in clumps of ice, her toes and nails and nipples bruised an awful purple. She was shouting, that much all of us know, but neither Vera nor her mother would repeat her words to us for a long time.
She is a very confused woman, we told our husbands, told one another. The following week a car came to her door and a dark, neat-looking man who might have been a brother, might have been a cousin, eased her into the back seat along with two suitcases and a record player. He noticed some of us looking, then, through our vitrines, through our open windows—and lifted a gloved hand in salute. In goodbye. We quickly stepped away, embarrassed to have been caught.
Years later, after Vera had wed and grown and inched out of her tight-waisted skirts, she sat at our table after a good dinner and let the liquored bitters warm her. She blushed, a blooming red on her jaw and around her wide mouth, and told us how she held the Jewish lady on the street that night. How she feared the woman would die in her embrace. And she looked like she would welcome death, Vera said, tears welling, rolling. I have never seen anything like that.
What did she say to you? we wanted to know, all of us did, our voices quiet. Encouraging.
Vera touched the back of her hand to her ruddy cheeks and told us: She said, ‘Where are you?’ That’s all she said. Over and over. Where are you.
We felt the tears burn in our eyes, too. Felt the burn down the backs of our necks.
I didn’t know, she whispered and we could barely hear it.
We forgave her, right there and then, for everything. You couldn’t have known, we told her. None of us knew. Our hands on her arms, her shoulders, our thumbs wiping the wet from her eyes.
I didn’t know, she said again, and we answered:
We know, we know, we know.