Read The Journey Back Online

Authors: Johanna Reiss

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

The Journey Back (7 page)

BOOK: The Journey Back
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Through half-shut eyes I saw two other people who were sitting nearby iump up and begin, their dash to the middle of the road. A car must be coming. Yes. With a screeching sound, it came to a halt.

“Step right in,” the driver said, grinning. But he did not mean them.

He meant another couple who were strolling toward him from another spot on the grass, a loaf of bread in their hands.

The two people who had reached the car it but empty-handed began to walk away, complaining that there was no justice.

I checked the watch Sini had let me take. I’d better move on. I got to my feet. Down, and down, and down. Soon I’d be there. Around the next bend, maybe? No, not yet. Then around the next one … Behind me I could hear horses’ hooves, clattering closer, and the sound of wheels.

The wagon was loaded high with potato peels. Maybe the man was going to deliver them to the farms in Usselo. Then I had to be very close.

Down, and down. Slowly I pushed my way past another stone marker.

Wasn’t I there yet? Please! Down, and down, and down.

There was the turn, at last. I could see the farms and a few other buildings, the caf, Spieker Diena’s dry-goods store, and a little bit of rubble that was still there from the bakery and parsonage. In between and beyond were the fields, one square of yellow after another. Here and there farmers were working in them, cutting the rye. Steadily they swung their arms back and forth; their backs, in the black-and-white striped shirts, bent. They moved their feet carefully so the wooden shoes would not flatten any of the stalks their sickles had not yet reached.

I took a deep breath. I didn’t have to look at the road sign; I knew. I was in Usselo. One more second-Stiffly I got off my bicycle and walked through the gate. Opoe’s little garden, beautiful. Behind it was the house, red brick with green trimmings. I stepped over the apples that had fallen into brownish piles and the swarming wasps that were buzzing around them and digging in. If I wanted to, I could close my eyes, keep them closed, and know exactly what I would see: milk jugs, four of them, waiting to be used, right outside the kitchen doori’ the tree that grew practically against the wall of the house, the-ssht, don’t get so excited-windows with white curtains, the begonia plants on saucers.

Remember me, all of you? I’m back. No, not to hide-to visit

Well, let’s see. No point going into the house at this hour, but someone would be out by the chicken coop. Laughing softly, I tiptoed over. Sure, someone was-Opoe! But who was that ugly fat dog that was walking next to her? What was he doing here? Maybe he did not belong.

I ran the last few feet. “Opoe, look who’s here!”

Her face wrinkled up with laughter. “God-ogodo-god, that could be our Annie.”

“Opoe, it is.”

“Isn’t that something? You came all by yourself!” She stepped back to look at me. “My Annie.

I’d better get busy right away. You mus be hungry -and thrs, I bet.

Sure, after such a trip. Fuifui.” She rushed off to the kitchen, followed by the dog. “Stop barking, Vlekje. She’s family.”

I approached the stable. There were two people inside. I threw open the door and marched in. They heard nothing. They saw nothing either.

Not now, no. Carefully I took an9ther step

“Goddamnit, Dientje, look!” Johan shouted and dropped the pail he was holding. “That’s our little Annie.”

“Johan, what’s the matter with you?” Dientje shrieked. “Let go. You’re crushing her. Johan!”

But her hug was just as hard. At last she let me go.

“We-would’ve come to see you, Annie. You and Sini weren’t mad, were you?” They looked at me. Something had happened to Dientje’s knee, Johan explained. “She fell and hurt it. We tried getting her on the bike a couple of times, but she couldn’t get going.”

The kitchen was busy. Johan was washing his face at the pump, splashing water on everything-the dog that was still there, the wooden shoes lined up by the door.

“Watch what you’re doing,” Dientje screamed from in front of the stove.

“I’m standing right where I get it.” But she was laughing, like Opoe and me.

“Hey, Annie, did I ever show you how well Ma can dance? Ha, ha, Ma, look at Annie’s face; she doesn’t believe me. C’mon, just you and me.”

He pulled Opoe off the chair. “How d’you like it, Annie, eh? It’s a waltz.”

“Johan, what’s the matter with you? My legs won’t go.”

“Nonsense, Ma. You’re doing fine for an old woman.” And he kept on singing and taking back-and-forth waltz steps in his socks, while all the time trying to keep them out of the dog’s mouth.

“Fui-fni.” Opoe laughed. “That Johan. “He’s so happy you’re here, Annie.

He hasn’t acted this way since you left.”

I hadn’t either. I was rocking back and forth in Opoe’s easy chair, doing a little dance of my own. Listen to Johan; he was yodeling now. A waltz too? I kept still for a minute to think. Yes, it was. There, I began rocking again.

But Dientje had had enough. “Stop acting up, Johan,” she yelled.

“You’re giving me a headache, and it isn’t even noon yet.”

“That late?” Opoe looked shocked. She sat down and pulled a basket of potatoes onto her lap. The dog immediately curled up against her legs.

“What d’you think of him, Annie?” asked.

“Veh cute,” I said. But was the dog sta’ with them forever? Yes, he was.

That’s what J was telling me.

“Opoe was so homesick for you. “Where’s giggly one,” she kept asking.

Right, Ma? All time. It got so bad, Annie, we had to get h dog.”

“Ja, ja. But it’s not the same thing, Johan,” protested.

That made me laugh again. Of course, it was In front of a rusty piece of mirror, Johan combing his hair. It wouldn’t stay flat. It springing up like brown and gray rubber bands. must have been out in the sun a lot, for his face very red, especially his nose and ears.

“Well, that’s that. A handsome man you’re h ing at, Annie. What d’you say, eh?”

“Yes, Johan.” He was. He liked my answer. smiled a few funes at himself before he hung mirror on the nail again.

With a long enamel spoon Dientje was st’rt something in a pan. Billows of steam were up, enveloping her, then thinning out and spring until they hit the window, the door, the walls, becoming drops that ran down and fort tiny puddles on the stone floor. So many won de sounds here: the flames racing across the wood in the stove, the teakettle whistling, the potatoes plopping into the bucket, the scraping of Johan’s chair as he pulled it up right next to mine.

“Now tell me what’s happening in Winterswijk.”

Intently they listened. Once in a while they would say something. “That Sini, she’s got it in her, Johan. I could tell when she was dancing here. Those feet couldn’t stay still.”

“But that was Liberation Day.

Every night now? No, that’s not right for a young girl. No wonder she got sick. And then complaining, too! Fuifui!”

From Sini, I went on to Rachel, and again they listened and had things to say.

“What? To church twice on Sundays?” Johan could hardly believe it.

“I’ll be damned. Here, Dientje, goes once a year, and that’s only because of the neighbors.”

“New Year’s Eve, Annie. I never skip. Y, ou know that.” With her lips pursed, Opoe said she’d love to go all the time if it weren’t for her lace cap. “It’s too much work to put on, Annie, and without it, it doesn’t look right. But that’s the only reason. Does Rachel talk religious, too?” she wanted to know. “Because some of ‘em do when they get that way, like old woman Roerink who always says-ah” Opoe had trouble remembering.

“The morning may-ah, ah-be beautiful, but we never know what ah-” She puckered up her forehead. “the night will bring us,” she finished. With a sigh of relief, she began on another potato.

And I told them that every day I had to go to the masseur, that I was tired of it.

“She shouldn’t have to, Johan,” Opoe said firmly. “There’s nothing wrong with her legs. A little short and crooked, but that’s the way they grew.

You’re a pretty girl, Annie. What did you call that man?

Ah, I can’t even say it. Pooh, what does he know.”

“Annie”-I looked at Johan. His face was seritell you something. You should’ve stayed here for always and not gone back to Winterswijk. I don’t even care for the town from what I saw. I guess I had it pictured wrong in my head. It’s not cozy.”

“We sure would’ve liked you to stay.” Shyly Dientie looked at me. “We wanted to ask your father when he came to pick you up, but we didn’t have the heart. He was so glad to see you. It would’ve been nice though, Annie, what?” Vigorously I nodded my head.

“But I’m still kind of a mother to you, right?”

With a pleased smile she moved the spoon around in the pan again. “We’ve got a school here, too,” Johan went on proudly. “You should see, a room as big as a house, Annie. With desks, nice pots of ink in the middle, everything. And I could’ve seen you every time I went by with the horse.” He laughed just thinking about it. So did I. “Excuse me,” I’d say to the teacher when I heard trotting noises, “I’d like to look out the window a minute.” And I’d run, wave. “Hi, Johan.”

“And don’t think we haven’t got soldiers here for Sirfl. Ha, ha, plenty.” Well, that I didn’t like.. “We’ve even got ‘em visiting us. Ja, ja, I’m not kidding. Last week one walked right into the kitchen.

Awfully nice fellow. We talked a lot.”

“You didn’t.” Dientje laughed through the st, earn. Johan ignored her.

“He stood around for a minute and said something like Borrow-horse-cart.

“Well, my name’s a lot easier,” I said. “Just call me Johan.” We both kept on saying the same thing, Annie. After a while I gave him an egg.

Had to get rid of him somehow.”

“Ah, Johan, he must’re come for something else. He looked so confused.”

“Then he should’ve said what he came for. left with the egg though. He even gave me a li tobacco, he was so happy.” Johan pointed at cigarette in his hand. “Here, this is one of How many farmers in Ussdo do you think could have had a conversation with in Engl eh?” Triumphantly he blew a mouthful of sin at the stove where it merged with the clouds steam. “No one. That S’mi was a good Eng teacher.”

“Fui-fui,” Opoe complained. “It’s be com harder and harder to see here.”

She took glasses and rubbed them against her apron. “Johan Her voice was urgent.

She half got off her chair. hear someone coming. Annie, upstairs.

Quick, qui, Johan, maker go. ]ohaa-an.” We stared at her. “The war’s over.”

“Ah, ja. What’s the matter with me? Asham, Opoe put her hand in front of her mouth. must’re been my imagination.”

“Well, woman,” Johan yelled, holding his up. “I’m ready to give you your dinner.”

“Just a minute.” Dientje tried to see into the frowned, gave the stew a stir anyway, and lift the pan from the stove. “All right, Johan. Hurry Make some space on the table. Don’t wait; heavy.” Groaning, she set the pan down in the mi dle of the table.

With h fork Johan gan to mark o porto..

boy, look at what I’m letting you have, almost as much as me. Ha, ha.

Don’t worry, Ma. I won’t forget about our Annie. This nice little pile is all for her.” I pushed my chair closer to the table, picked up my fork, and dug in. Three big flies buzzed up and down the table, trying to find a way into the pan. I slapped at them. Go away. Vlekje was standing on his hind legs, his paws on Opoe’s arm. But Dientje wouldn’t let Opoe give him anything. “Don’t forget, Mother, he’s only a dog.” A nice dog though. Sweet eyes. And the steam … it made everything even more cozy. All wrapped up-us. Contentedly I licked my fork. “It’s good, Annie, isn’t it? Nice and crusty, the meat, right? The way you like it?”

Dientje asked. With my mouth full I answered, “Yes.” Her whole face beamed.

We had finished eating. The flies had dived into the pan and were walking across the bottom. Johan tipped his chair back, stuck out his legs, and pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his mouth.

“Dientje, after you’ve cleaned up here, I want you to lie down for a while. Ja, ja, take a rest. You look awfully cd. It mu the kacco It’ll do good.”

“What?” With big eyes Dientje stared at him. don’t understand. All you’ve done for weeks complain about my resting. You told me my kn was all better now,-” He ignored her. “And, Ma, you do the same. 0 to bed with the two of you.”

“I won’t sleep, Johan,” Opoe protested. “A I’ve got to put fresh straw down for the chickens

“I don’t care. Let them use the old stuff. We’: all going to have a little what-d’you-call-it-va tion. C’mon, Annie.”

“Where are you going?” Dientje asked. “To the front of the house, woman.”

“But Johan, this morning you said you had s. much to do that we wouldn’t see you till darl Now look at you.”

“Ah, Dientje, that was this morning.


I followed Johan out of the kitchen.

“ja, ja, Annie, life’s not easy.” Johan sat down between the geranium beds in front of the hour his arms resting on his legs. “We’ve had not hi but trouble the last couple of months. First Op with the head. Then Dientje with the leg. All I’v done is work, Annie. I bet that’s what has kept me healthy. Remember, during the war Dientje and Ma always had to push me? “Go, Johan, what’s the matter with you? You can’t stay in the house all day. The grass, the turnips … No more. I run to work. What’s there to stay home for now that you and Sini are gone?“I took his hand.

We sat close, saying nothing. When he began to talk again, he sounded more cheerful. “But you never know, Annie. You could come back and live here. Crazy things happen. Who would’ve thought you’d come here in the first place? Eh?”

In front of us a butterfly kept waltzing by, its yellow wings glistening in the sun. The sounds of footsteps came from the road. I could see a farmer, a sickle across his shoulder. “Afternoon, Pict,” Johan called out to him. “How goes?”

“That’s Annie,” Pict shouted, running over. “I was talking about you just a few minutes ago. Ji, we still can’t get over it. I was telling the wife’s cousin how I thought I wasn’t seeing right when you first hobbled out of the house in April. Who’s that? I asked everyone, but they didn’t know, either. That Johan, how he kept it hidden from us! And that’s’not easy in Ussdo, Annie-let me tell you.

BOOK: The Journey Back
11.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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