Hair that always smelled of cows

The Discomfort of Evening

In the nights that followed, I kept sneaking downstairs to check whether my brother was really dead. First I’d lie in my bed wiggling around or ‘making a candle’, as I called it, by throwing my legs up in the air and supporting my hips with my hands. In the mornings his death seemed obvious but as soon as it grew dark, I’d begin to have my doubts. What if we hadn’t looked hard enough and he woke up under the ground? Each time, I’d hope that God had changed his mind and hadn’t listened to me when I’d prayed for him to protect Dieuwertje, just like the time – I must have been about seven – when I’d asked for a new bike: a red one with at least seven gears, and a soft saddle with double suspension so that I didn’t get a pain in my crotch when I had to cycle home from school into the wind. I never got the bike. If I went downstairs now, I hoped, it wouldn’t be Matthies lying beneath the sheet but my rabbit. Of course I’d be sad, but it would be different from the beating veins in my forehead when I tried to hold my breath in bed to understand death, or when I made the candle for so long my blood ran to my head like candlewax. Finally, I let my legs drop back onto my mattress and carefully opened my bedroom door. I tiptoed onto the landing and down the stairs. Dad had beaten me to it: through the banisters I saw him sitting on a chair next to the coffin, his head on the glass of the viewing window. I looked down at his messy blond hair that always smelled of cows, even when he’d just had a bath. I looked at his bent body. He was shaking; as he wiped his nose on his pyjama top, I thought how the fabric would become hard with snot, just like my coat sleeves. I looked at him and began to feel little stabs inside my chest. I imagined I was watching Nederland 1, 2 or 3 and could zap away at any moment if it got too much. Dad sat there for so long my feet got cold. When he pushed his chair in and returned to bed – my parents had a waterbed that Dad would sink back into now – I descended the rest of the stairs and sat down on his chair. It was still warm. I pressed my mouth to the window, like the ice in my dreams, and blew. I tasted the salt of my father’s tears. Matthies’s face was as pale as fennel; his lips were purple from the cooling mechanism that kept him frozen. I wanted to turn it off so that he could thaw in my arms and I could carry him upstairs so that we could sleep on it, like Dad sometimes ordered us to when we’d misbehaved and been sent to bed without any dinner. I’d ask him whether this was really the right way to leave us.

The first night he was in the coffin in the front room, Dad saw me sitting with my hands around the banisters and my head pushed through them. He’d sniffed and said, ‘They’ve put cotton wads in his bottom to stop his crap coming out. He must still be warm inside. That makes me feel better.’ I held my breath and counted: thirty-three seconds of suffocation. It wouldn’t be long before I could hold my breath for so long that I’d be able to fish Matthies out of his sleep, and just like the frogspawn we got out of the ditch behind the cowshed with a fishing net and kept in a bucket until they were tadpoles and tails and legs slowly began to grow out of them, Matthies would also slowly transform from lifeless to alive and kicking.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening, tłum. Michele Hutchison, 2020.