“It looked like two curls of butter on a saucer”

Human and animal smells, anatomical exploration, games, illnesses… A real shock that this first novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who first became known through her poetry, and grew up on a farm, like the heroine of her delivered. She is 10 years old and decides not to take off her parka when her older brother, Matthies, disappears when he goes skating on the frozen lake. The family – three children, pious parents, severe, hard at work – tries to survive and rebuild around the gap of mourning. Claire Devarrieux

I was ten years old and I never took off my parka. That morning, Mom coated us, one after the other, with milking fat to protect us from the bitter cold; she dipped her fingers into a yellow Bogena box to extract an ointment which is normally used to prevent cracks, calluses and cauliflower nodules in the teats of cows. The lid of the box being all greasy, she could not do without a tea towel to unscrew it. From this product emanates the same smell as the udder that sometimes simmers in a broth on the stove, in thick slices sprinkled with salt and pepper, a dish that horrifies me as much as the ointment that clouded my skin that day. . This did not prevent mom from planting her big fingers in our face, as in one of the cheeses whose rind she feels before tapping it to check the progress of its maturity. Under the light of the kitchen bulb, lined with the droppings of flies, our pale cheeks glistened. For ages, we had been waiting for the lampshade, a beautiful flowered lampshade, but when we spotted one in the village, Mom made it a point of honor to look further. A merry-go-round that had already lasted three years. The morning in question, the day before Christmas, feeling the pressure of her slimy thumbs in my sockets, I was afraid, for a few seconds, that she would push too hard and that my eyeballs would roll in my head. like marbles. Don’t let her tell me: “This is what happens when we daydream all day long!” You don’t want to stop moving your eyes a bit! Freeze them like a good believer who lifts his own to God when the sky is about to open. ” Okay, but hey, around here the sky only opens for a snowfall, nothing that does not lend itself to staring silly at the sky.

In the middle of the breakfast table sat a small wicker bread basket, the bottom covered with a napkin embellished with angels of the Nativity. Some of them sheltered their zizi behind a trumpet, others behind a tuft of mistletoe. Even holding the towel against the light of the bulb, I couldn’t see what the contraption might look like; I bet for a slice of cigar-rolled mortadella. On the paper napkin, Mom had carefully arranged a variety of slices: white bread, wholemeal bread with poppy seeds, christolle. Holding a Chinese in a steady hand, she had covered the crispy upper part of this winter cake with icing sugar, a layer like the first light snow that had fallen on the backs of Groningen cows, before they were brought in. The clip of the bag of bread was invariably on the rusk tin, so as not to lose it: a simple knot to close the plastic wrapping, mom found it shabby.

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“First the salty, then the sweet.”

His usual instruction. A rule that would allow us to become tall and strong, as tall as the giant Goliath and as strong as the Samson of the Bible. In addition, we had to drink a large glass of milk without fail, usually lukewarm – she drew a liter of it a few hours earlier from the can. Sometimes a yellowish film formed on it; when you didn’t drink fast enough, it stuck to the palate. The best thing to do was to swallow it all dry with your eyes closed, a tactic Mom considered irreverent even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about how to drink milk – faster or slower or more or less. slowly – nor on the need to savor the taste of cow meat. I took a slice of white bread from the basket, put it on my plate, bottom up, so that it looks like an infant’s pair of pale buttocks, even more striking when you look at it. toast half of the chocolate dough. Despite the routine, this operation did not fail to amuse us, my brothers and me. Each time, they would tell me: “Aren’t you fed up with licking the poo off the ass?” But hey, first start with the salty before moving on to chocolate …

“When you leave goldfish in the black for too long, they turn white,” I whispered in Matthies’ ear.

Then I covered my bread with six slices of cervelas, making sure they did not protrude by a millimeter. You have six cows of which we eat two. How many do you have left? With every thing I ate, I heard the master’s voice echoing in my head. Why did these stupid calculations always relate to food – apples, cakes, slices of pizza or cookies? It escaped me. However that may be, the teacher had given up all hope of one day teaching me to count, of one day seeing my snow-white notebook without the slightest red strikethrough. Hadn’t it taken me a year to learn to tell the time, daddy sitting for ages next to me in the kitchen, leaning over the clock face lent by school, that on certain days, out of desperation? , he was swinging on the ground, blowing up the mechanism so that this shit would not stop ringing? Despite this apprenticeship, it still happens that the needles turn into earthworms before my eyes, the very ones that we uproot from the ground with a hook, behind the barn, before going fishing. When you hold one between your thumb and forefinger, it curls up all over the place; you just have to tap it and it will calm down for a moment, motionless on the palm of your hand, like a strawberry lace from the Van Luik candy store.

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– No low masses when we are all at the table! my sister Hanna reproached me, sitting next to Obbe, in front of me.

When something displeases her, she slides her lips from left to right.

– There are words that are still too big for your little ears. Don’t go through the holes, I replied, my mouth full.

Out of boredom, Obbe stirred his milk, a finger dipped in the glass. He brandishes the skin before soon spreading it on the tablecloth. It stuck there, it looked like white snot. Disgusting. I knew that the soiled side of the fabric, where the skin was going to dry, could very well be in front of my chair the next day. There is no question, in such a case, of putting my plate on the table. We all knew that the napkins were figurative and that Mom, after breakfast, would put them back, folded and unfolded, in the drawer; that they weren’t intended for our dirty fingers or our smeared mouths. In a way, I would have found it quite pathetic to pound the cherubs in my fist like mosquitoes, thus smashing their tiny wings or smearing their white angel hair with strawberry jam.

– As I’m a little pale, it’ll do me good to get some fresh air, whispered Matthies.

He smiled and, in a great effort of concentration, stuck his knife in the white part of the Duo Penotti pot to avoid picking up brown paste. Duo Penotti only appeared on the table during school holidays. Several days in advance, we had mouth watering. The Christmas holidays had just started, the hour had come – the best part was when mum took off the lid, peeled off the glue residue from the edge of the jar and showed us the brown and white striped surface, which we recalled the pattern, each time different, of a newborn calf. The kid who got the best marks that week helped himself first; I always went last.

I moved my buttocks in my chair, my toes were missing a few millimeters to touch the ground. I would have liked to have kept everyone at home, to distribute the family members like slices of cervelas on the farm. If the teacher of the last year of primary had told us yesterday, the last day of school of the year, that some penguins from the South Pole who go fishing never come back, it could not be by chance. Of course, we don’t live in the South Pole, but we don’t quail them any less. Such cold that the lake was frozen over and ice formed in the cows’ drinking troughs.

Next to each of our plates were two light blue freezer bags. I held one up and looked questioningly at Mom.

– It’s to put over your socks, she replied, smiling.

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His smile hollowed out a small pit of gravy in each of his cheeks.

– That way, your feet will stay warm and dry.

While talking, she was making breakfast for dad who was helping a cow to calve; after each toast, she slid the knife between her thumb and forefinger to collect, with the flat back of the blade, the butter at the end of her two fingers. Dad, on the other hand, was certainly sitting on a milking stool collecting colostrum, little clouds rising from his sweaty back. Breath and cigarette smoke. I noticed that there were no blue bags next to his plate: he probably had too big feet, his left in particular, deformed from a combine harvester accident while he was only twenty years old. On the table, mother had placed, near the place she occupied, the silver probe with which she judges the flavor of the last cheeses she has made. Before starting one, she pushes the utensil right into the middle, piercing the plastic wrap, twisting it twice, then gently pulling it out. To enjoy a menu of coring of cumin cheese, she uses the same meditation and the same devotion as when eating, in the temple, the piece of white bread from the Last Supper, taking her time, staring into space. One day, Obbe quipped: “The body of Jesus is cheese, we must not abuse it on our toast, otherwise there will soon be nothing left of Him.”

Mother having said the morning prayer and thanking God: “It is from on high that His providence gives us a rich abundance”, Matthies pulled back his chair, hung his black skates by the laces around his neck and put in his pocket the Christmas cards Mom had asked her to slip into some acquaintance’s letterbox. Matthies was going to the lake where we would meet him later […]. I would have liked to put a freezer bag on his head, press the zip around his neck, so that he does not catch a cold, stays warm for a long time. He fiddled with my hair, which I hastened to flatten; after which I brushed off the crumbs that had fallen on my pajama jacket.

Matthies always wore the parting in the middle; he put gel on each front wick, it looked like two curls of butter on a saucer, like the ones mum made around Christmas – butter in a tray, she didn’t find it festive, it was for ordinary days . […]

Passing the door, he turned around one last time to say goodbye, waving his hand, a scene that I had to go through and through my head afterwards, until one day when, his arm refusing to rise. , I started to doubt that we had said goodbye.

Translated from Dutch by Daniel Cunin. Buchet Chastel, 290 pp., € 20 (ebook: € 12.99). In bookstores on August 20.


Marieke Lucas Rijneveld author

Next weekend Blind lights of Benjamín Labatut

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