from Hina

Translated from Dutch by Bo-Elise Brummelkamp

The population of Boveneinde was thinning. After Truden, more and more people became infected. The dungeons were so full that those marked by the disease were now exiled as soon as they were discovered. Men lost their wives, mothers lost their children. Evil had chosen them—they must have done something to deserve their fate.

I was at my window, watching a man walk off the square, away from the castle and across the moat, until I had to lean forward to keep him in view—a difficult task with that wooden slat in my dress. Once he was out of sight, I shuffled to the other window as quickly as I could, where I could see him again. He was all alone and headed straight towards the forest; no sword, no bindle. He approached the trees without slowing down and disappeared. Why would someone calmly walk to their death?

Maybe I could still stop him. I called for my maid, who had apparently been standing right behind me and had seen the whole thing. She fell to her knees and started rocking back and forth, muttering a prayer. Three spectral aunts standing in the hallway simultaneously bowed their heads. As soon as I tried to run out of my room, one of the uncles pushed me back in and locked my door.

I kept an eye on the forest in the years that followed, but the man never returned; I only ever saw more people leave. I was powerless to do anything about it. My uncles had decided that anyone who voluntarily entered the forest must be possessed, and that we should therefore let them go; those who submitted to evil were not worth saving.

I spent my days minding Liesen’s children. She was pregnant for the sixth time, and had spent the entire pregnancy with her feet up; not lifting a finger, her belly like a waxing moon. My mother had spear-hunted boar until her water broke. She hadn’t had a choice—she was alone and needed food. Her contractions had started far from home. She’d hoisted herself onto her horse rode as fast as she could, trying to reach her hut in time, but the contractions had been so painful that she lost her balance. Alone, lying on the forest floor and drenched in sweat, she pushed for hours until the stars twinkled in the sky and she finally pulled me out by my shoulders. I wasn’t breathing at first. She held me upside down until I started to cry and wiped my face clean with her thumbs. We lay there for hours, just staring at each other: her in the grass, me on her chest.

Liesen screamed like she was going to die when she gave birth. I pressed my ear against the thick doors and listened, terrified. I knew they would save the child’s life before they saved hers. She made it, as did four of her children. Two had died in the womb—bloody lumps that were burned in the kitchen fire.

Liesen spent her days eating grapes and brushing her hair. I spent mine in the nursery. Her little ones crawled all over me with their big heads and fat little legs. The youngest usually slept on my chest, the others begged me to pick them up all day long. I would absent-mindedly stare out the window as I obliged. Every person who walked into that forest had been like this once: smelling of sweet milk, warm and defenceless. I went to the window, one child on my chest and another one on my back. The oldest was five, a boy who fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow at night, exhausted from all his tumbling. If he were to walk into the forest, would we call him possessed too?

The critter on my chest wriggled and started to cry. I rocked him in my arms, whispered soothing words in his ear, pressed my lips to his head.

Mama used to tell me that a woman knows when something needs to die. I didn’t, but maybe that was because I wasn’t a woman yet. I’d protect the tiny fingers clutching me until the end—that I knew. They had someone else’s flesh and bones, but my heart leapt into my throat whenever they so much as coughed.

Besides, I didn’t really know the people who walked into the forest; they might be sick or insane, they might be a child-murderer or covered in pus-filled boils. But we did share a world. And when someone willingly walked away from that, when I watched someone approach the treeline without intervening, it felt like I lost something too—a little piece of happiness, of hope, of myself. It meant there was one less person out there who believed in a happy ending.

The baby on my chest had fallen asleep. The thought that he would one day walk into the forest was too cruel to entertain.

One day, when yet another soul had entered the forest, we ate our broth in silence. Nobody felt like engaging with Liesen’s gushing stories.

Liesen always had to wear long underpants to bed after she’d had her first courses, in case she started bleeding during the night. I still slept in a nightie, like a child. Fourteen years old and still not a woman—my aunts were rapidly running out of patience. They’d gone ahead and started arranging my marriage, that way they could kick me out the door the second I bled.

They’d settled on Geurt, a distant cousin twice my age. I’d seen a shoddily drawn portrait of him—that is, I hoped it wasn’t particularly good because his head looked awfully pointy. Geurt lived in Ellecom. I’d never been, but they told me it was only a two-hour carriage ride away, and that, though his house was small and shabbier than the castle, and the ghosts of his three previous wives tore the plants from the garden at night, it did have a garden.

My aunts began visiting me every afternoon for marriage lessons. They sat down, I had to stand. It became clear to me that I had to do everything, everything, everything in my power to make this marriage happen, and to make it last, and to bear as many children as I was granted. This marriage, and this marriage alone, would be my salvation. Evil is all around us, my aunts said, and a woman is nothing but a weak body it loves to use as a vessel. Didn’t I know that? The magic-wielding she-devils were everywhere, including in Boveneinde. Were they not always women, and women alone? The only thing that could save a woman from this fate was a man, who could take ownership of her body and teach her how to live piously.

It all came down to intercourse, really. I was taught to always be alluring, to offer him my lap and lift my legs and hips after the deed was done to give the seed a chance to penetrate. I caught myself longing for Geurt. Marrying him couldn’t be much worse than staying here. It would be nice to raise my own children, to maybe get a goose, or a little goat.

After returning from our silent supper, I blew out my candle for the night. I lay in bed with my hands on my belly, rubbing my hipbones, and realised I actually kind of looked forward to intercourse. It would be nice to feel. Since mama, no one had held me but my corset. How wonderful that I would soon be indispensable, that I’d be needed by someone.

I thought: what a lovely existence, being someone’s possession.

I thought: if mama knew…

Suddenly, there in the darkness, it became crystal clear: mama had known. She had one child, one pride and joy, one chance at a legacy. This woman who had spent a lifetime picking tar out of her feathers to finally break free from any and all oppression, the only woman to be both admired and feared, this predator who took what she needed and then swiftly disappeared between the trees, this lone wolf, had raised a child who didn’t mind trading her body for some affection. I wasn’t a child, but a tick, looking for a warm spot to latch onto. Mama was the bravest woman in the land—I was a barnacle at best.

I thought: she knows when it’s time for something to die. She has rid herself of the tick.

A gust of wind blew my shutters wide open and made the curtains billow. I looked at them but didn’t move, listless as a wet leaf.

I thought: at least I’ll have a different name.

My aunts wanted my waist to be small enough for Geurt to be able to wrap his hands around it. The first time he saw me, I’d be wearing my wedding gown. Or, well, he wouldn’t really see me because my head would be covered by a white cloth. That’s why my aunts wanted me to have big breasts, wide hips, and a tiny waist like a handle in between. They endlessly pulled and tugged on the laces of my corset, and once it was on, I wasn’t allowed to take it off again; that was supposed to mould my organs into shape. The days were so long and suffocating that Geurt became my anchor. In my head he was clumsy but friendly. Not much of a talker, but with a genuine smile. In my head, he worked with his hands while I picked flowers for our mantlepiece.

More people had disappeared into the forest. I didn’t want to think about it, so instead I focused on my new—and only—role. That night, my aunts disappeared without a word, leaving me standing in my room, wearing my narrow, high-heeled shoes, the white cloth draped over my head and my corset so tight that I was constantly gagging. I thought a good woman would wait for their return, and then I also thought about Geurt.

They did not return. It was getting dark.

I tried to stretch my arm. It hurt. The sleeve was pressing on my veins. I bowed my head as far as my dress would allow, my fingers tingling, and yanked the cloth from my head. The grass looked silver in the moonlight. I shuffled to the window and dug my nails into the wooden sill. Fog hung above the grass. The fog had a head, and a torso, and legs.
It was turning in circles, like it was looking for something. My eyes were glued to it; how it didn’t seem to have a face except for the holes where its eyes should have been, how it whirled and swirled. Then I realised that the holes were pupils, because they were looking at me. It rushed straight towards my window—I stumbled backwards.
The thing banged against the window and tried to unlock it with its foggy hands.


It felt like someone had placed their lips against the fuzz on my ear and whispered.

Hina, I heard again. Goosebumps brushed up my legs.

You have been lost, but now you are found.

I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to turn and run away, but my feet were firmly planted on the floor, as if two strong hands were holding them there.

The only one who loves you is in the forest.

The fog put its hands against the glass and my bones rattled.

You must go!

Suddenly it looked over its shoulder, and then it was gone.

I had to move—I couldn’t just keep standing here. I wanted to get as far from the window as possible. After just two steps in my skinny heels, I rolled my ankle, so I kicked and thrashed until the infernal things came off. I dashed out of my room, pushed past the maid, and promptly ran into two aunts. They tried to grab me—I couldn’t be seen in just my underclothes—but the wooden slats on their backs kept them firmly upright, so I ducked, slipped between their skirts like an eel and righted myself, coughing. Screams sounded from the end of the hallway. The last door was Liesen’s, it was Liesen who was screaming—she was screaming for help. I reached her door, flung it open, and saw her: naked, with that enormous belly, surrounded by three or four uncles. As she looked at me, an uncle grabbed her hair and pulled until she lost her balance and crashed to the floor. The uncle kept pulling, forcing her to crawl backwards, and I understood that Liesen might be special, but she was still a woman, so kind of like a dog. That’s when I knew where I had to go: far away from there.

I heard the uncles behind me but ran away, up, to the quarters of Liesen’s children: Didderic, Thille, Everdey and Lizebette. They couldn’t stay in a place like this. I kept repeating their names in my head and ignored the black spots in my vision, the numbness spreading throughout my body. I clawed at the stone wall to pull myself up the stairs. There they were: two of them playing in the hallway, the other two probably in the room. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘come on, let’s go.’ I grabbed their hands, went inside, and asked Didderic to hold his little sister so I could take the youngest. The baby woke up in her crib, turned her head, and there it was: a big red blotch on her tiny neck.

Two uncles seized me. They ordered me to go back to my room and wait for my dressers, who would undress and then redress me in my many black layers. I stood there while they yelled at me, still staring at the baby. One uncle followed my gaze, saw the blotch, and immediately shouted for reinforcements. I dove to grab her, but the uncle buried his shoulder in my stomach, lifted me up and carried me off. I beat on his back and bit his neck, until eventually he hurled me into my room where my head hit the floor and for a moment, everything went black—my feet and fingertips were tingling and that corset had to go. I kept one of mama’s old knives under my bed—it was just within reach. I cut through the laces and could breathe again. I lay there, drinking air like water, revelling in a brief moment of something good. But Lizebette, with her milky scent, was probably being tossed out onto the street at that very moment, cot and all. I shot upright and as I was sitting there, still out of breath, I saw she wouldn’t be the only one: there was a red blotch right under my belly button.

I looked up. My dressers could come in at any moment. I struggled to my feet and started looking through my wardrobe for anything I’d be able to put on without help. I found a blue underdress. I didn’t take anything else; I just ran down the stairs, past everyone, into the kitchen. The staff stared at me as I sprinted to Truden’s back door, until suddenly I found my stockinged feet standing in the square. It was market day; there were stands and animals and dirty people everywhere, and all eyes turned to the only clean girl, standing there with no shoes on. To stay would be suicide; the blotches would reach my neck or my hands before I knew it, and when they did, I’d be done for. So I turned and ran towards the only place where no one would dare to follow: the forest.