I was born in Surinam in the district of Commewijne. Some of the plantations in that fertile, once-wealthy district had meaningful names: Mon Souci, Mon Trésor, Peace and Delight, Mutual Care.
I come from Spite and Remorse.
Most of the plantations no longer exist. Abandoned by their inhabitants, the buildings collapsed.
Sluices silted up and fields became swamps and breeding grounds for caiman. The trading stations fell prey to parasites, weeds and choking liana. Slowly, the jungle took over. Sometimes a royal palm sits enthroned above all that rampant vegetation. Or, witness to faded glories, a tall hedge of flowering coral trees, which once shaded rows of coffee.
I was taken away from Spite and Remorse when I was four, or maybe five years old. The events that took place in my life before I had to leave my relatives to be delivered to the city as a foster child continued in an underworld of spirits and shadows. Nothing there is palpable, but the vague ghosts who live on silently in my dreams could very well stand for a father, a mother, brothers and sisters.
I don’t know my exact age but what difference does a day, a week or a month make to a whole existence which has been given to you by someone else and which you have to take as it is? You see people everywhere who don’t accept the life they receive and resist it, always trying to squirm their way out of it: megalomania, waste. Sooner or later death will have mercy on them.
I’m not mentioned in the records of Spite and Remorse. My existence starts in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Miskin of Paramaribo. These are the people who raised me up to be what I am now. I carry their name and I speak their language. The things that preceded this fostered life now exist as vague images of the journey from the plantation to Paramaribo. But there are also flashes of clarity. Things like climbing into the car, a means of transportation I had never seen before. The noise of the engine. The slam of the car door, quick and explosive, like the sound of a setigon. Events I have used to fix my memories. It was probably because I gave in to the rocking movement of the car, but I kept dozing off. I spent most of the journey asleep.
I remember the silhouette of the driver, big and dark. There was a female sitting next to me on the back seat. When I awoke and opened my eyes, she gave me a friendly look from behind her shining glasses, said something, and waved at me. It could have been a reassuring gesture or perhaps a greeting. I didn’t understand her. I re-closed my eyes and drifted off. Even now I can sleep for days when ordinary life gets too much for me: letters on the doormat, an account that has to be settled, noises, the telephone; why haven’t you been in touch, recriminations of short-sightedness; charity, interest, livelihood, the dishes. It piles up and gets as heavy as stone. In the no man’s land of sleep, I return home and shrug off the ballast.
It was dark when I arrived at my foster home. I woke because the car had stopped. In the doorway of a large house someone was standing in the light. It was a woman. She walked down slowly, her arms spread. She helped me out of the car. I let her lead me up the stairs. Climbing stairs, one foot at a time, step by step, was as foreign to me as all the other events of the day I came to the Miskins’ house. I finally managed to reach the top on all fours. Being able to walk doesn’t mean you can walk up stairs.
I remember a numbing exhaustion and being overwhelmed by sleep in that strange house until I awoke and noticed that someone was bent over me. It was not the woman from the car with the shining glasses. In the dark room, I vaguely recognized the face of the lady from the night before who had stood with her arms spread in the light and accompanied me up the stairs. She pulled me up, and I followed her to a small room. She gestured and I understood that she wanted me to get undressed and wash myself.
I don’t know if it was because she turned on the tap that was sticking out of the wall and made water come splattering down from over my head, but for the first time in my life I was overcome by fear. I stood stock-still with my arms crossed in front of me. The lady tried to pull my frock up over my head. She couldn’t get it past my locked arms. The frock was the only thing I had left that was mine. I endured being washed with my clothes on. The frock stuck to my body like cold skin.
Later Mrs. Miskin would sometimes cite that first cold shower: “You had a will of your own, girl, a typical Kabugru. When an Indian and a Maroon go together, you get a kind of . . . ” She coughed, looked at me seriously and frowned. “As tough and impenetrable as a mangrove swamp. It took a lot of effort to break that will of yours. But remember: where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Mrs. Miskin woke me every morning at five. The first few months I had to shower with her watching. She stood in the corner of the bathroom giving directions.
“Soap, use plenty of Sunlight. That’s the best way to banish primitive odors.”
Later, when she was satisfied that I had the knack of the basics of daily personal hygiene, I washed alone.
“Well, child,” she asked, when I was dressed and had come downstairs. “Have you cleansed yourself properly?” She had the comb at the ready. “Come, let me quickly tidy your hair.” She liked combing and plaiting my hair. When she was finished, I set the dining-room table while she made banana porridge for breakfast.
Mr. and Mrs. Miskin ate at the large table in the dining room. They took breakfast at quarter past six. Even on Sundays. I ate first in the scullery. Before starting to eat, I thanked Our Father in Heaven for His good gifts. That was what I was taught to do. He, the Lord in Heaven, suffered the little children to come unto Him.
My foster parents raised me with the Bible. Grace before meals, giving thanks afterward, psalms learned by heart, the Gospel, chapter and verse.
During Mr. and Mrs. Miskin’s meals in the dining room there was nothing to be heard except cutlery clinking on china. At the table a great silence ruled between my foster parents. The final chord–which I learnt to recognize in the scraping of the cutlery on the plate, a brief silence and the sound of Mr. Miskin’s chair being pushed back–was the sign that I should enter and clear the table.
Every morning at half past six Mr. Miskin left for work. Before climbing onto his Fongers bicycle he took the brim of his brown felt hat between thumb and index finger and turned it down. He was always dressed in a navy blue three-piece suit. Once a year he ordered a new one from Wulfsen and Wulfsen.
“The tailor,” said Mrs. Miskin, “for the Dutch and the upper classes.” Contentedly, she looked out at her husband through the venetian blinds.
My foster parents had fixed habits. After a warm lunch, Mr. Miskin went upstairs to his quiet room, a dark room into which he withdrew to read the Bible and other weighty books. He was no talker, Mrs. Miskin told me that repeatedly. Silently, he moved through the house. But in the afternoons, at exactly four o’clock, when he’d gone into the bathroom after his afternoon nap, he sounded like an invalid whose last hour had struck.
“Mr. Miskin’s coughing up his gall again,” Mrs. Miskin would say. It was as if the water he used to gargle contained an emetic. The inescapable noises he produced made me retch. At half past four he came downstairs as noiselessly as ever. “I’m just going to stretch my legs.” He left for his afternoon stroll.
The woman who had brought me to the Miskins as a foster child was called Miss Treurniet. She brought inland children to the city where there was a shortage of children in service. Mrs. Miskin had explained to me that Sister Treurniet was a godly woman, a true daughter of the Lord: “She took you from that native hovel that you might become civilized. I assure you that here, in the city with us, you are at home with Our Savior.”
Miss Treurniet looked like a rag doll: her smooth girlish face sat on top of a shapeless, neckless body.
“Spinsterhood is the future which awaits many of those cautious girls who have been raised by the better families,” said Mrs. Miskin. “They find their vocation in the service of the Lord. Their whole being is dedicated to the good cause. If they don’t find the Lord, their life is but an empty shell.”
The two women called each other “Sister.” They weren’t related but were, as Mrs. Miskin put it, close mates. “The only female who has access to my hearth and home.” She would stake her life on the fact that if she, Mrs. Miskin, were to ask Miss Treurniet for a favor, no matter how unusual it might be, Miss Treurniet would never let her down.
“But I’m a modest person. Just as long as you never forget to be grateful to Miss Treurniet for bringing you into the big wide world, the world of the church and civilization, Paramaribo.”
In this city’s registry office my foster parents entered me as “Hannah, foster child to the family of Eugenio Miskin and Esmeralda Miskin, née Schattevoo. Estimated age at time of delivery–the 22nd of February, 1939–four years.”
The day after my registration I was enrolled at St Peter’s Primary School. St Peter’s was a Catholic school run by nuns. My teacher was called Soeur Victorine. Mrs. Miskin wasn’t Catholic, but it was the closest school, just a few minutes’ walk from the house.
“Everyone has their own faith,” she explained, “but personally I swear by the Lutheran church. It is unsurpassed. It is also a church with standing.”
On Sundays I accompanied her to her church. We walked along Grote Combé Way past the house of the Dutch pastor, who preached the Gospel to young Javanese girls while gigantic, slavering dogs stood guard. Then, through the quiet Palm Garden and past the former Governor’s Residence to the Waterkant. Mrs. Miskin wore a plain silk dress. Always plain, never floral or striped. That would have been “too riotous, too Negroid’. Gold pins on her shoulders held the straps of her slip in place.
I walked beside her and saw the admiring glances of approaching pedestrians. She nodded a greeting to an acquaintance but did not stop. A woman of standing walks on. Mr. Miskin was of another faith, the Community of the Moravian Brethren, which also included Miss Treurniet amongst its number. “They have done a great deal for the less fortunate, a great deal of work converting the population of the bush country. Thanks to their efforts, many a Muslim has turned his back on Allah. You will never hear me utter a word of complaint about the Moravian Church.’ On Sundays Mr. and Mrs. Miskin parted company. Each visited their own church.
At first my vocabulary was limited to “please” and “thank you” and “Sir” and “Madam,” but I soon learned to speak impeccable Dutch. At St Peter’s I was allowed to skip the infants’ class.
“What an intelligent girl she is,” said Soeur Victorine to Mrs. Miskin, who had been asked to come to the school for a talk. “And to think that she’s a foster child. She’s so precocious. I’ve never had one like that before. In general these children are quite backward when they come to the city. You’d think she was much older. Extraordinary!”
Mrs. Miskin sniffed at the lace handkerchief she always held in one hand outside the house and said, “Ah, Soeur, what can I say? I’ve taken this task upon myself and I’m carrying it out heart and soul.”
Grades one, two and three were combined. There was a boy called Sobha in my class. He was so big he already had a moustache. Once, when he had to read the Dutch ABC out loud, he asked Soeur: “Poodle? What’s Poodle?” Like me, he was learning the words. It took us a while to figure out that there was a connection between the pictures in the primer and the words. None of us had ever seen a black dog with a funny-looking, trimmed coat and we had never heard of a dog called Poodle. Dogs were called Blacky or Nona. They were dogs’ names. A cat was called Pussy, not Tabby.
“You’re here to learn, boy, not ask questions,” Soeur answered. “Children should speak when they’re spoken to.”
I didn’t need to ask any questions. Mrs. Miskin schooled me at home to such a degree that I was soon using language in a way that had nothing to do with the world of my schoolbooks.
I sat in the place of honor, at the front. My desk was up against Soeur’s. The white skin of her face almost formed a whole with her yellowed wimple.
In the morning I was allowed to hand out the slates and the slate pencils. At the back of the class were the big children and the children who would never learn anything because their heads, according to Soeur, were filled with everything but brains. That was where Sobha sat, and so did Jules Chok Fung Yen, a boy with baggy, navy shorts and knobbly knees. Jules came from China. He was far advanced in arithmetic and could multiply and divide large numbers at top speed. He didn’t speak any Dutch, and in Paramaribo he had to start at the beginning with Poodle and Tabby. But mostly he just slept, snoring softly with his head on his hands.
New children came to the school and others disappeared. I remember Jopie. She sat by herself at the back of the class. She told me about her family who lived on the plantation New Refound, about her little brothers and her grandmother. Now she was fostered to Mrs. Mendesohn. But she missed her mother so much that she’d already run away from the Mendesohns’ a few times. She couldn’t find her way back home. I asked her how long she had lived with her foster mother. She said, “Two months.” Mrs. Mendesohn had threatened her with Youthripen, the juvenile prison. For a long time I thought that Jopie had made up the plantation name New Refound. Place names in Surinam mean something.
Mrs. Miskin took me to Youthripen one Sunday afternoon, “for my education.” The mesh fence was topped with barbed wire and the girls hung off it like listless bats that had lost their way in the light.
They were barefoot, in dark-brown uniforms. Young men hung around, their hands deep in constantly moving trouser pockets. The men made hissing noises. One moved the red tip of his tongue in and out of his mouth like a snake in front of its prey.
If Jopie ran away again she’d be locked up in there. Then she’d never see her mother again. In class she stared straight ahead or lay with her head on her arms and slept. Just like Jules Chok Fung Yen. Sometimes it was Jopie’s turn to go to the front of the class. Soeur called her Sleeping Beauty and asked her to recite the two times table. Jopie stood up slowly, dragged her feet all the way to the front, then stood there with her head bowed and didn’t say a word. Soeur Victorine said, “There are whole tribes out there that will never learn anything.” Jopie went back to her place at the back of the class and stared into space silently.
The schoolbooks had pretty pictures in them. Of little Dutch children called Ot and Sien and Trui. Children who aged a year with every new book. They weren’t precocious. But they were far away in an unreachable world. We of St Peter’s Primary School would never be like them. We were from a different world. The things that happened to Ot and Sien and the other children in the schoolbooks happened under the watchful eye of very kind grown-ups. I pined for that divine world: with a mother who lovingly does the washing in the kitchen with a washboard, her plump white arms dripping suds. And with a monkey that wears a skirt and a hat.
The only time a disaster happened to Ot and Sien the chapter was called: “A Leak at Guurtje’s.” It had been windy. A roof tile had come loose. There was a leak in the old woman’s house. That was something nasty happening in that other world. That was worth mention.
Mrs. Miskin taught me another language. She recited long, rhythmic sentences, her head held to one side, staring into the distance, “Similar sounds are stepping stones one skips over when one speaks.” She read to me from her favorite book: PJ Harrebomée, who she called the master of the aphorism.
She knew dozens of poems off by heart.
“What is important is the art of declamation, giving the correct emphasis,” she pronounced, “but that is preceded by committing the text to memory, word for word.” Emphasizing every syllable, she recited: “Negritude is like flowering vanilla, high in the jungle trees. Still far away, the odor greets us, while carried on the breeze.” That verse is carved into my brain. As self-evident as the fact that the knife, as Mrs. Miskin taught me, is laid to the right of the plate when setting the table.
“Do you know who created those splendid lines? Eugène W Rellum.” With this name she taught me the history of the reversed surname: “Now we have two flies with one blow. Surinam’s history is so fascinating, child. Rellum should have actually been called Muller. Nearby, long ago, there lived a certain Mr. Kalop, a little brown man who was related to the great Polak family, but of course they were of a much lighter hue than Kalop. This Kalop had once been houseboy to the Polaks. Family connections are sometimes complicated. It is so important for you know about the past. Even if only to join in conversation.”
I thought of Jopie, my classmate from New Refund. She knew so much about the past that she longed for it. It ruled her days. She didn’t discuss it. In front of the class she could only give a display of silence.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Mrs. Miskin. “I’m trying to refine you and you stare into space. Pay attention, girl, don’t daydream.” And she carried on with her story. The history of the reversed names was from long ago, from when there were still slaveholders.
“If I told you how we were mishandled and humiliated in former days.” She twisted her face as if trying to suppress afterpains. “Like a cancer, the worm of slavery gnawed at every budding sprout which, with proper care, could have contributed to the blossoming and prosperity of our country. You can get down on your bare knees and thank the Lord you didn’t live in those times.”
On my bare knees I thanked the Lord with full submission.
She taught me the poems of Van den Vondel and Speenhoff, and the Dutch national anthem. I learned it all by heart and gradually made Mrs. Miskin’s language my own.
“There are,” she once said solemnly, “two beautiful things in this world: remembering and forgetting.
“And two ugly things: remembering and forgetting. I didn’t make that up myself,” she smiled, “but I could have.” I thought it a pretty saying and repeated the words to myself. Mrs. Miskin was like a radio that was on all day, quiet but clearly audible. She was my background music. I was her only audience.
We were attuned to each other.
Mrs. Miskin was big. She had gorgeous black hair that she wore in a bun under a gossamer hairnet. She wore beautiful dresses with lace collars. Gold bracelets tinkled on her wrists. When she spoke, she stood straight, her head slightly raised. As people do when giving a recital.
Mr. Miskin had no time for her rhymes and what he called her verbal deluge. He was small, a good bit smaller than his wife, and stout. It seemed as if his head had been dropped onto his shoulders from a great height, driving his neck down into his trunk. The back of his head was like a sloth’s. Mr. and Mrs. Miskin lived together politely. They never touched each other. At home they avoided each other. When she spoke to him, he answered without looking up from the book he was reading, so that it looked like he was reading the answer out loud. If he happened not to be reading, he looked down while speaking, as if studying his knees or the toes of his shoes.
“Do me a favor,” he said when Mrs. Miskin went on too long. “Words, words, I can’t bear all this racket.”
After first arriving in the house of my foster parents, I slept on a woven mat on the floor. Mr. and Mrs. Miskin slept in two beds. In the mornings, when I helped Mrs. Miskin with the housework before going to school, we made the beds and I noticed how she tied them together with a shining cord looped around the bars. She always did that herself. One Saturday I was allowed to accompany Mrs. Miskin to Happy Day, the department store where she made her large purchases.
“Sleeping mats are for plantations,” said Mrs. Miskin, “we’re going to make a fine city lady out of you.” She bought a camp bed for me. “Later, when you’ve grown up, you’ll sleep in a proper bed like Mr. Miskin and I. When you have reached that stage. But you still have so much to learn. Everything in life must be earned.”
Civilizing me was Mrs. Miskin’s ruling passion. “Won’t they get the shock of their lives if they ever see you again at Spite and Remorse. When a lady comes to visit them. We, Mr. Miskin and I, may not have brought you into this world but, by refining you, with a great deal of refining, I must succeed in making you into a copy of ourselves. No one, not a soul will recognize you when you stand there, clean and well-groomed, in front of the primitives. They will ask themselves, ‘Who is that lady?’ And what will you answer?”
“I am Hannah Miskin,” I answered.
I tried to imagine going back to Spite and Remorse. The only things I had to go on were Mrs. Miskin’s descriptions. Primitiveness, poverty, idolatry, rattlesnakes and other terrors, like the story she told me with great enthusiasm about the history of the name Spite and Remorse. Long, long ago, when slaveholders still had slaves, the plantation I came from was the property of the wealthy Du Plessis family. Mr. Du Plessis was an incorrigible lady’s man and his wife was a jealous spouse who watched over her husband like a kidnapper guarding his victim. She followed his every movement and noticed that he spent a lot of time around a certain house slave, Etrave. One day, the jealous Mrs. Du Plessis saw her husband, in an attempt at seduction, casually stroke the young slave’s breasts in passing. The mistress was furious. She was in charge in the house. Behavior like that undermined her authority. Her husband was the slaveholder, in the fields he could have his way and give in to his bestial urges. But inside the house, her rules applied. She summoned the plantation flogger and ordered him to cut off the young slave’s breasts. That would teach her to make eyes at her master. Boiling with rage, she personally fried up the breasts for her husband.
“Human flesh,” Mrs. Miskin interrupted the story, “apparently has a very delicate taste. It can be compared to lean pork.” Fortunately I had never eaten pork. It was trayf to Mrs. Miskin so we never had it in the house.
“Silently, the couple sat down to their meal,” she continued the story. “The man clearly enjoyed it and smacked his lips heartily.
“Superb,” he said, praising his wife’s culinary art.
“Well then,” she said, when the meal was finished and the man had uttered a satisfied belch, “I hope you’ve finally had your fill. You just ate the breasts of your beloved Etrave.”
The man stood up. His knees buckled and he tried to support himself on the edge of the table. He tore the buttons off his shirt and grabbed at his throat. Vomit poured out of him. It was like the explosion of Krakatoa. First, the steaming undigested food came out, one thick mush. Then gall-colored fluid and, finally, seething foam. He couldn’t stop vomiting. He fell down and vomited out his heart and soul. Mrs. Du Plessis looked down on her dying husband in horror.
“Oh God, my Lord,” she called out in despair, “what have I done?” Her spite had made way for remorse.
“Well,” Mrs. Miskin said, ending the silence that had fallen, “what do you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“Of course you don’t know. It was long before your time.”
On the twenty-second of February, we commemorated my presence in my foster parents’ house. I can still clearly remember the first celebration of the anniversary of my arrival. The brass in the hall was polished, the wooden Viennese furniture was waxed and the floorboards were oiled.
“It is,” said Mrs. Miskin solemnly, “a memorable day.” She had made orgeat and baked a viado. I accompanied her to Happy Day, the department store where she went shopping on Saturdays. She bought small candles and paper serviettes. Alma, the seamstress, had made a beautiful dress for me.
Pink with a billowing skirt.
Miss Treurniet was invited to the party. Her glasses shone. She sat down on the wooden Viennese rocking chair with her legs apart, the way people who are too fat sit. She looked big and droopy like a kotomissie doll, but without the traditional costume. She couldn’t stop fidgeting with the straps of the handbag she was holding on her lap. Mr. Miskin sat silently in one armchair and stared ahead. I sat on a small bench at the low coffee table on which the cake had been placed. In the middle of the viado was one of the candles we had bought together. Mrs. Miskin took a box of matches from the sideboard, lit one and handed it to me, “Here, child, light that candle.” After my second attempt to transmit the flame from the match to the candle, Mrs. Miskin lit it herself.
She was the only one standing and seemed bigger than ever.
“Child,” she said solemnly, her hands folded, “time flies. You have now been with us for one year. If you continue to do your best, you may stay with us until you reach womanhood. God willing.”
I received a small gift wrapped in shining paper. It was a silver ring with a small red stone.
Mrs. Miskin pulled up a chair next to Sister Treurniet’s. She sighed. The ring was much too big for me.
“It’s better for it to be too big, then you can grow into it. Something that fits will get too small, cut off the circulation and stunt the growth.”
Miss Treurniet said, “You put that very well, Sister Miskin.” She gave me a present as well, a white handkerchief with an embroidered edge.
“How our Hannah has grown,” said Miss Treurniet.
“At the registry office,” said Mrs. Miskin, “I said that she was four years old. That might not have been right. She’s already a strapping girl. She’s lost quite a few of her milk teeth already. But it gives a pert impression, such a precocious child.”
Miss Treurniet said, “I estimate her at closer to seven than six.”
The four of us sat there like that for a time.
The first crickets announced the evening. The birthday party was over. Miss Treurniet said good-bye. Mr. Miskin left to walk her part of the way home. “That will give me a chance to stretch my legs at the same time,” he said. “I haven’t got round to that yet because of the festivities.”
I took the ring and the handkerchief upstairs to my bedroom. Carefully I slipped the ring into an empty matchbox. I pulled the red case out from under my camp bed, opened it with one of the two keys that were tied to the handle with a string, and put the box and the handkerchief with the rest of my things.
The case was my very first possession. Mrs. Miskin gave it to me as a gift the day after I arrived at her house in the city. All my possessions were stored in it: my Sunday dress, the three dresses for weekdays. “One in the wardrobe, one in the wash and one to wear,” was the Dutch adage Mrs. Miskin impressed upon me, but there were always two neatly starched and ironed dresses in my case.
The Miskins had waited a long time for a child. “From my own flesh and blood,” as Mrs. Miskin was wont to say. “But the Lord ordained otherwise. Not because of me. They turned me inside out, like a fish, and there was nothing the matter.” I always had to think of Mrs. Miskin inside out when I cleaned the fish on Fridays. It was one of the household duties she had taught me.
Every Friday around one o’clock, Mai, the fishwife, came by with a big basket on her head in which the fish lay, protected from the sun by a banana leaf. “Warapa, tarpoen, koebi,” she would call through the street.
Mrs. Miskin bought a koebi. She taught me how to slice open the belly. First, I had to sharpen the knife on the whetstone. Then I had to stick the point of the knife in the small hole in the middle of the belly. In one movement, I had to pull it through to the gills. Just under the skin, not too deeply. I had to remove the innards from the intestinal cavity with the membrane intact. Carefully I extracted the koebi-stone from the head. Mrs. Miskin had a collection of these white stones. Around her neck she wore a gold necklace. The pendant was a koebi-stone set in gold.
The fish had to be divided into three pieces. The bit with the head was for me, the tail end was for Mrs. Miskin, and the fleshy middle piece was for Mr. Miskin.
The Miskins’ house was in the Combé neighbourhood on Hofstede Crull Avenue. “I’m still trying to find the works of this poet from our Golden Age,” said Mrs. Miskin. “But it’s so darned long ago. I bet that even in the mother country it would be almost impossible to find his poems.”
It was the neighborhood where many of the streets were named after Dutch governors: Wichers Street, Crommelin Street, Van Sommelsdijck Street. My school was on Loth Avenue.
The house, the largest in the street, was built on stilts. A concrete wall had been erected around the yard. Shards of glass from broken bottles had been set into the top of the wall.
On one side the yard bordered on a large property with an abandoned, bougainvillea- and ivy-covered, planter’s house. Mango trees, cacao, pomegranates and soursop grew in abundance in that garden.
Once, when I was busy sweeping the front yard, a lot of mangos fell one after the other to the ground. I looked up and saw that the crown of the giant mango tree, which loomed darkly over part of our yard, was coloured with moving black and yellow. I stopped work and made out little monkeys amongst the plentiful fruit. The animals were gorging themselves on the mangos no one picked.
The property was bewitched. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that.
At night you heard the baleful calls of owls. When you least expected it, you would see a big cane basket on the broken wooden bridge that led to the property from the street. The basket was filled to overflowing with bottles of wine and spirits and the most beautiful fruit. Perched on top of the wine and food was a live white chicken, put there by the same invisible hand. The animal made no attempt to escape.
I passed by with a shudder. When I came back from school in the early afternoon, nothing had been touched and the chicken was gasping for air in the scorching sun. The next morning it had all disappeared without trace. When I first saw the basket on my way to school, I went back to the house to get Mrs. Miskin.
“In the future, act as if the object is not there. Because what the eye doesn’t see can do the heart no harm.” She spat on the ground, made the sign of the cross, and instructed me to do the same. That day I was late for school. Soeur Victorine had no sympathy for my excuse. As punishment I had to write “Witchcraft does not exist” one hundred times.
The monkeys weren’t bothered by the fact that the yard was bewitched. As light as birds, they sprang from branch to branch. All at once a rifle shot rang out and I saw one of the animals fall, hit the top of the fence and plop down into our yard like an overripe fruit. I ran over to it. It lay on its belly with its face in the sand. In the tree the other monkeys shrieked. Some of the animals sprang down to the lowest branches. I picked up a stick and turned the animal over onto its back. It was a squirrel monkey. The eyes were wide open. The upper lip was drawn back and little teeth were visible in the silent, grinning mouth. Its arms were wrapped tight around a tiny, wrinkled baby monkey. The little one crumpled its tiny forehead into a frown. Its mouth opened and closed with a suckling movement. I tried to lever the baby from its mother’s embrace. But the grip of the mother monkey’s small, black-leather hands was too tight. It was as if the baby was caught in a trap.
I ran into the house to get Mrs. Miskin. When we came back out there was no monkey on the ground, both mother and baby had disappeared. High above us, the last monkeys leaped away from the mango and dissolved into the hazy green of the other trees.
“Now listen good, girl. Don’t play tricks on me.” She took my chin in one hand and forced me to look her in the eyes. Threateningly, she held her index finger under my nose: “Imagination and reality aren’t the same thing, remember that. Reality is gruesome enough by itself.”
I swore I was telling the truth. I couldn’t bear it that Mrs. Miskin suspected me of lying.
“I’ve noticed that you see too much for your own good. Shut your eyes. Don’t burden yourself with things you’re not strong enough to carry.”
The shot that had brought down the monkey had come from the large property that adjoined ours on the other side, a bigi yari, with lots of different houses.
Mrs. Miskin said, “It’s as if Noah’s Ark ran aground there after the Flood. That’s Surinam,” she said, assuming the solemn face she used when declaiming, “in a nutshell. Our country does not have one people, but different kinds with their own languages, religions, customs and habits. They do not share a single tradition. They don’t know where they come from or where they are going. The only constant is the great suffering, and that undermines them.”
All imaginable peoples were represented in the bigi yari: Indians, Hindus, a Maroon, a Chinese, Burus. If Noah had seen that motley crew he would have thought, “What now?” and abandoned ship.
Mostly, the people there just moped around. They were poor and the property was dirty. It flooded at the first sign of rain. The outhouses overflowed and gave off a penetrating stench. Chickens, ducks, a peccary, a fawn, dogs and cats were all mixed up together.
In the middle of the property was the house of the Hindu family, Gopal. I was forbidden to have any contact with them. From my bedroom window I had a good view of their veranda. They were always pawing each other: combing hair or looking for lice. The man had elephantiasis. He moved with his legs wide apart, as if walking on stilts made of tree stumps. Below the knees, his trouser legs looked like flared skirts. There were eighteen children in the family. Not long after I saw the dead monkey in the garden, three of the Gopal children died in the space of a few days. The mother shrieked and wailed and tore out handfuls of hair. From my bedroom window, I watched her throw herself on the ground and start eating sand. Mrs. Miskin observed next door’s waterworks with disdain: “What a farce. If you’ve got eighteen, three more or less is neither here nor there. They’re beastly. Those women breed like rabbits. Goodness knows how that fellow manages it. It’s an ungodly state of affairs.”
She viewed her own childlessness as the worst thing that had ever happened to her. When the moon was full, she moaned, “Oh, Father in Heaven, that I have never been full to bursting and able to endure that liberating pain.”
Every time she got her sickness–which is what she called those strange moods–it was full moon. First she grew uneasy and started chattering incessantly. Then she turned the whole house upside down: dragging the linen out of the wardrobe, washing out the china cabinet, polishing the brass, airing the mosquito nets.
“I can’t stand this filth, I can’t stand it,” she mumbled. The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom.
She sprinkled lavish quantities of creoline, which dissolved in water to form a milky fluid. On my knees, I scrubbed the floorboards clean. To her I was a slattern, a grub. She called me incorrigible. I could do nothing right.
After finishing the job, she collapsed. Felled, she lay between the sheets with a wet flannel over her eyes. The blinds in her bedroom had to be kept shut–in the state she was in, she couldn’t abide the light of day. But it was the moon, more than anything else, that had to be shut out. She cursed the day she was born and called herself a mule, a worthless monster, a dry well. The death bird called and dogs howled along, heads back, looking at the moon, mourning unfulfilled desires.
“And you,” she moaned bitterly, “I know that all my efforts to make you someone in society are pearls before swine.” She predicted that the day would come when I would forget her.
“Never, never,” I spluttered, kneeling at the foot of her bed. “You will always be with me.”
Normally, she was glad of my company. I was her hobby, she called me a gift she had received, small perhaps, but one that made her life meaningful. Without me she had nothing to love. I kept her going.
“And,” she said. “I’m serving the good cause. I dedicate myself and work to give you civilization you would have lacked if you had stayed in the bush.” I would have been unable to read or write. I would have been a lost soul in the jungle, a prey to wild animals. And without a grain of spiritual hygiene. She took her time and expressed herself clearly. And I remembered her words, just as I remembered poems and psalms.
My second birthday on the twenty-second of February was celebrated, just as the first had been, in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Miskin and Miss Treurniet. Once again there was viado and orgeat. Mrs. Miskin handed me a gift that was wrapped in shining paper. I opened it. A green exercise book appeared.
“Don’t look so disappointed,” Mrs. Miskin took the exercise book out of my hands.
“What do you think it is?”
“An exercise book,” I said.
“I thought so. Eugenio, may I use your pen?”
Mr. Miskin stood up and walked to the writing table in the corner of the room, where he took a pen out of the penholder and opened the inkbottle.
“Wait, before an accident happens.” Mrs. Miskin walked over to him, sat down at the table, dipped the nib into the bottle and started writing on the cover.
Waving the book in the air to dry, she came over to me. “Read out loud,” she said. Decorative letters announced: DIARY. “In this book you can note all the trials and tribulations of everyday life. One tends to forget so quickly,” she said.
Miss Treurniet presented me with a pencil. Together we spent most of the festive afternoon sitting silently in the front room where the brass had been polished and the chairs had been rubbed until they shone.
Miss Treurniet had left, Mr. Miskin had gone to walk her part of the way home. To stretch his legs.
“I have another little something for you,” Mrs. Miskin said when we were alone. “In a way it’s a gift between us. But ultimately the hand that feeds you, Mr. Miskin, will reap the most benefit from it.” She gave me a book and opened it at the first page. “Read that, child,” she said.
“The first tips for daily hygiene,” I read. “Tip one: Irrespective of whether the hand is attractive or unattractive, looking after the nails and carefully trimming and polishing them gives every hand, good or bad, the appearance of good breeding.”
“Magnificent,” she interrupted. “Carry on like that.”
I read on, “One begins by filing the nails when they are dry and hard, after which it is necessary to soak them. The best nail files are flexible, thin and strong and do not have a handle. File carefully around the corners and endeavor to penetrate into the corners themselves.”
“Marvellous, Hannah, go on.” Delighted, she clapped her hands.
I hesitated. “Further,” she said.
And I continued. “After the cuticle has been cleaned and loosened, it must be pressed into place cautiously but firmly. An orange stick is all that is needed for good nail maintenance and its regular use will ensure that the cuticle knife, a dangerous instrument in non-expert hands, does not need to be employed.”
“Eugenio,” she called.
I jumped and stopped reading. She had heard Mr. Miskin come in.
“Eugenio, a surprise.”
Mr. Miskin did not appear.
And I continued, “As the continual manipulation of the cuticles makes them thick and tough, they must be pushed back every morning with an orange stick.”
“Go on!” she ordered. “Eugenio!”
Mr. Miskin appeared in the doorway. “What’s got into you, woman? You’re screaming like a griot.”
“My efforts have borne fruit. Read, my child, read loudly.”
And I read the story again, emphasizing the syllables clearly, just as Mrs. Miskin had taught me.
Mr. Miskin stood in the doorway, listening.
“Well, what do you think? I promise you that within a week she’ll know it off by heart.” She clapped her hands with joy.
“She has talent, that’s for sure,” said Mr. Miskin. His eyes wandered from my head down to my feet and back up again. “That’s for sure,” he repeated.
After a week I could say it in my sleep.
Around that time she gave me a file, a pot of salve, a fingerbowl and a sheet of emery paper.
“I’m pleased that you’re taking over some of my domestic chores,” said Mrs. Miskin. She gave me an empty biscuit tin to keep my hand things in. BEUKELAER was written on the lid in raised italics.
“Eugenio, may I introduce you to your little manicurist.” Mr. Miskin lay flat on the bed, eyes closed. Mrs. Miskin sat down on a stool and I knelt beside her.
Mr. Miskin opened his eyes, looked at me briefly, smiled and laid his hand on a towel on Mrs. Miskin’s lap. She took his thumb. I was allowed to pass the instruments.
“Here, you do it,” she said unexpectedly one afternoon.
The thumb felt thick. I hesitated and held the stiff thumb awkwardly in my fingers.
“Don’t look so scared, child,” she said, “that thumb won’t bite you.’
“Well?” She looked at me expectantly and pressed the nail file into my hand. “Get to it.”
I followed her instructions. Mr. Miskin neither moved nor spoke.
When I was finished, she got up off the stool and said, “Sit down.” I sat down and draped the towel over my lap. Mr. Miskin turned onto his side. His eyes were closed. I started on the other hand.
“As far as this goes, I’ll leave Mr. Miskin in your hands from now on. I couldn’t do better myself. If you keep doing it this well, we won’t need to buy a cuticle knife.”
Mr. Miskin valued regularity. He liked to have his hands done after his lunch and before his afternoon nap.
Just as I’d made Mrs. Miskin’s language, poems and sayings my own, I also got to know Mr. Miskin’s predilections.
Every second day, I had to go in to him after lunch in his quiet room.
“Enter,” he called after I had knocked on the door. He lay stretched out in his silk dressing gown. I sat on the footstool, took my tools out of the BEUKELAER biscuit tin, and spread the hand towel over my lap.
Mr. Miskin turned onto his side. He looked at me, stretched out his arm and spread his fingers out on the towel. A smile played over his lips.
“You see this hand?” Mr. Miskin moved his fingers, forcing me to stop my task. “This is the hand that feeds you. Without this hand your head, your belly, your limbs don’t exist, none of you exists. This hand is turning you into a big girl. Look at me.” I looked him in the eyes. “What happens between the walls of my quiet room is our secret. Miss Treurniet, Mrs. Miskin, no one exists here except you and me. Understood?”
I did what was asked of me.