At fifteen years old, Leentje – Leen, as she was called – De Graaf did not know how to diagnose the mix of frustrations and emotions that collected into the tiniest of split–second decisions, spiraling into a flex of the muscle at the top of her knee, then hurtling down into a thrust from the ball of her right foot, pushing hard on the gas.
On that third Saturday in October, 1944, she knew in the same way she knew that rain was coming, or that her brother Issac would choose a scowl before a smile, that the war still was not over. It was part of the backdrop of her daily life that the Allieds had not yet crossed the Rhine into Friesland.
She was aware that she was tired, but like the war, exhaustion was expected; it was truth. It seemed wherever she was at, she worked; ever since Herr Müller replaced Mr. Dykstra, the headmaster of Wierum’s small school, shouting numbers at her in Deutsch, she hadn’t been to school. Her baby sister, Renske, had never been at all.
She knew she was strong, with hard shoulders and a straight back, and, if it was her Pater asking her, a readiness to say yes to the task at hand, and yet this made her a misfit, and beyond that, a disappointment to her mother.
But what was foremost on her mind that day, before she found herself in the truck, stepping on the gas, was the stolen packet of salt shoved deep in her skirt pocket, wrapped carefully in a single sheet of waxed paper.
Leen reached an arm into her hand–me–down coat, and just as she started to put her other arm through the sleeve, Mr. Deinum patted her on the shoulder. She jumped at his touch even though she knew he stood nearby.
“Sorry, Leen,” he said, and by his easy, nonchalant tone she was sure he knew. She waited for him to clear his throat and deepen his tone, pause, then tell her to empty her pocket, to return the salt, and to report to her Mem and Pater that she no longer had a job. She could not bear Mem’s reaction, her frozen face pulling deeper into a silent frown.
Instead, Mr. Deinum said, “Good work today.” The back door, where she entered and left, was off the kitchen, and he sat down at the table with the cup of coffee Leen had warmed for him in the last few minutes of her shift, her hand shaking when she poured it into the thin blue cup. He took a sip. Suddenly he held it up, as if he could see through the porcelain, and made a mock gagging noise. “Not enough suker, you know?”
Leen nodded. She leaned slightly against the door, keeping her coat around her. There were a lot of things she wanted to say to him. First, that she didn’t do a very good job, that she swept flour into corners, refolded damp towels rather than wash them after one use. Second, that she liked him the most of any adult she knew, save her own father, and was sorry for stealing from him. Third, that she had no plans to stop. They needed it too badly.
Instead, she said, “I know. My moeder tries to make cakes with less. It’s not the same.”
Mr. Deinum shrugged, sighing. Sometimes she could tell his cheerfulness was an effort. Today, it made her nervous, so she kept talking. “The tea isn’t very good either. But I’m used to it now.” She told herself to say goodbye, to get going, she needed to get to the deliveries and then home where she could place her illicit package on the kitchen table and wait to see if her mother smiled. It was Mem’s idea for Leen to work at the Deinum’s, to teach her, finally, how to keep a house, and for Leen to get one of the most coveted items since the rations began years ago: salt.
And it also meant getting Leen out of the fields. Though if Leen had her way, she’d be back getting dirty in the heavy, fertile clay, driving the tractor or dropping in sprouted new potatoes, drinking coffee with Issac and Pater in whoever’s field they were working that day, and eating bacon rolled up in soft bread for lunch. Leen loved how the days in the fields were ordered by the season and the weather and the condition of the crop itself, how the work required clean–up only when a task was completed, not because it was considered good practice or that Tuesday was the agreed–upon day to iron all the linens.
Instead, six days a week Leen De Graaf traveled to Dokkum to work as a maid for the Bakker Deinum and his wife. This also meant that six days a week she had to pass the German camp, speeding past it at 7 a.m., and speeding even faster at 5, when it was just getting dark. It was always worse in the evening, the adrenaline surge in her toes pushing against the pedals of her creaky bicycle, her thighs burning and her hands cramping with her iron grip on the handlebars. At least on Saturdays, she could drive – illegally, still – her father’s truck. Then she could drive fast, keeping the camp a fixed blur in her peripheral vision until it became nothing at all. Today should have been no different. Except that she had added another regularity to her routine: theft. She was now two things she despised: a maid and a thief.
In the dim light, provided by smoky lamps lit with diesel oil and beeswax candles, Mr. Deinum looked tired. “The things you miss,” he said softly. “The little things. Sugar in your coffee.”
Leen watched Mr. Deinum grimace as he took another sip. Pressing her hand against her pocket that housed the coveted crystals, she whispered, “I should go.” She cleared her throat, embarrassed at her own voice.
She shifted her weight and swore she could hear the paper crackle. Was he teasing her? Baiting her? That wasn’t like him. When she first took over the deliveries from Issac three years ago, Mr. Deinum had been one of her first customers. He never once asked how a twelve–year–old girl could be such a good driver, or asked if Issac was ill when she first started delivering on her own, willfully forgetting the constant conscription raids that made it too dangerous for Pater or Issac especially to work outside of Wierum. Nor did he try to help her with the work, letting her sweat and grunt as she ably unloaded sacks of flour and sugar. When she was finished, he gave her chocolate milk for free, and insisted she sit and drink it. “You need to rest, you’re working so hard,” he’d say, and Leen liked him for that alone, because no other Frisian she knew said anyone worked too hard.
Her mouth felt like it was filled with dry beans when she answered, “Ja, but not so many. Not many have the money to pay anymore.” Internally she repeated to herself: Leave now. You have to leave now.
“You take trades?”
Leen’s heartbeat spiked. Of course. He suspected her of stealing the salt to trade on the black market. And he was partially right. “The trades are often worth more than the money,” she said, reciting something she’d heard Pater say.
Mr. Deinum stared at his cup. He said, “Say hi to your brother for me, ja? I haven’t seen Issac in far too long.” She knew he liked to visit with her brother. His own son, Klaus, had been unexpectedly caught, despite the work of the Resistance, and sent to Germany for forced labor, gone over two years now.
She started to turn the doorknob. “I should go,” she said again. This time she felt like she was shouting. “I will tell Issac you said hello.” He was still looking at his coffee, no longer attempting to keep her there for her company. She felt ashamed at what she had taken.
But not enough to take it out of her pocket and confess.
“Doeie,” she said quietly, using the casual goodbye. Leen closed the door but not before Mr. Deinum called after her to be careful. He said the same thing every time she left.
Inside the truck she exhaled. She pulled out the salt and placed it on the seat next to her. She checked the list Pater had given her that morning and noted there were only two places to go. Then home.
She breathed in deeply and started the truck. At that moment, she was sure she’d gotten away with it.
She was wrong.
She rushed through the deliveries, Pater’s other business that made the best use of the rusted, damaged vehicle. Back inside the truck, Leen tossed the German–issued tobacco onto the passenger seat. Mrs. Waaten couldn’t pay with anything else.
She gripped the wheel and put it into gear. She steered the truck onto the lane that led her towards Wierum. She should have felt relief at being finished, but she was filled with steam, just as anxious as she’d been leaving the bakery. She picked up the packet and held it between her palm and the steering wheel. I should keep it, she thought. What if she pulled over, right then and there, and licked the salt off the paper until she wore holes in her gums and the roof of her mouth? But she knew she would never do it. Mem had plans. They would save as much as they could so she could use it when Pater next traded for a pig that they would butcher to fry chops and cure bacon all in one day, stretching the meat as much as possible until they could trade for another.
That’s all anyone could talk about – food and the end of the war. No one in the De Graaf family had eaten a piece of fruit in weeks, not even an apple, and having the salt also meant Mem could take even the tiniest pakje of salt, as small as a teaspoon, and trade it for a tin of peaches or a few pears. But even more so, Leen hoped this new possibility would invigorate Mem, who had become still over the years, the only word Leen could think to describe her, when her brother Wopke died.
Leen turned left. It was the last stretch before home and her eyes passed over the deep green of the pastures where the sheep, goats and cows grazed. The dike, a specter half–covered in mist, held back the North Sea, its horizon interrupted by the radio spire of the camp. Already she was going fast, too fast. Her knee shook a little as she let up off the gas. Like her father, Leen could be brashly stubborn at times; when she wanted something, she was sure of it. Like her mother, she did not like learning to do anything she was not drawn to, and when she was forced, she was timid and fearful and too sensitive to those watching her, yet reticent to admit these traits. The trouble with the camp was that it fit into none of these parameters; it was not a task, it was a not a new taste, it was not a job. It was, simply and uneasily, there.
To some Wierumers, passing it was like passing another field of cows. It was nothing to take note of despite the faded green camouflage tents connected by yards of netting; the mottled concrete bunkers resting heavily on the wet ground, like igloos; the spikes of the ominous radio towers stabbing the low sky. But Leen had never gotten over her fear of the soldiers posted at the side of the road, their uniforms a plain, flat gray that matched the dull metal of their warplanes, a gray that matched the heavy clouds drifting over the dike. Long after she passed the camp she could still hear the soldier’s barking dogs, brown and black German Shepherds growling and straining at their leashes. As much as she tried not to, she listened for it.
Could they hear her? Did they ever catch her laugh, an odd phrase about something mundane, like needing to sweep out the barn, or that she hated tulips because they never lasted, or Tine’s giggle, or Renske’s needful whine, or worse, Issac’s or Pater’s deep voices? The danger was never over for the men.
And in many ways, the danger was never over for the girls and women either. Leen and Tine were under strict orders not to interact with any German in a uniform, ever. During the last year at least two girls she’d known since her earliest memory had suddenly disappeared, sent off to family in another village no one had heard of. Sometimes girls were arrested. Their heads were shaved in public with rusted clippers and the worst things you could say, things Leen would be slapped for if she ever said them aloud at home, were screamed at them. The words hoer and lânferrieder were shouted and Leen had watched more than once as the girls’ eyes squeezed shut at the words, as if they had been slapped, and Leen wondered what was worse, to be called a whore or a traitor.
Just a month before, bicycling her way to her first day of work at the Deinum’s, a soldier had yelled to Leen, asking for a kiss. His voice was high and lilting, almost friendly. It had shocked her to hear him use Frysk words, not the limited Dutch some soldiers could spit out: “Hey you, famke, I want a lyts tutsje! Give me a tutsje!” Leen was wiry–haired and skinny–armed, the curve of her chest slight. She hadn’t yet started her period, much less kissed a boy. She had clear, light blue eyes but nearly everyone she knew had them too. She was not someone who attracted much attention, for her looks anyway, and although she had never admitted this to anyone, not even her older sister Tine, she wouldn’t mind if a certain boy noticed, even if as far as she could tell he regarded her as a curiosity rather than desirable. Nor would she mind being kissed, under normal circumstances, as long as she didn’t have much advance notice, because that would give her too much time to develop her nerves and refuse, or worse, fumble the act itself and have that memory forever to alternately fail to repress or scrutinize her mishandling. After all, if girls married at 18 and 19 and became mothers soon after, there was a lot of, of territory – space and land she knew little about – to traverse.
But these nervous desires did not match the sudden shout rising out of the muted din of the camp, and it startled her. She swerved and rolled onto the wet grass, sending short sprays of muddy water onto the edge of her skirt. He called to her again. She could see his hair was almost white.
“Come on, come over here!” he called. Crouching over the handlebars, pumping her legs, Leen maneuvered her bike back onto the road, looking only at her front tire, her eyes tearing with the wind. The soldier yelled again, his voice lower now, but she didn’t answer, letting only a small whine sound from the back of her throat. In her head she repeated: Go, go, go…
Finally he yelled, “Mean girl! You’re breaking my heart!” Then she heard a crash against the wire fence and heard the characteristic bark of a German shepherd, low, deep, loud, and constant. She let out a yell, fearing that the dog would somehow break through and clamp its jaws around her ankle as she had seen one do during a razzia years before. Then she heard the laughter of the soldiers standing with him, some more jangling of wire and chains, the barks suddenly quieting, but it wasn’t until their voices faded behind her completely that Leen stopped her bike and clutched her cramping stomach, gasping and spitting on the grass. At that moment she had thought to herself, twelve times. Twelve times a week I have to pass this camp.As Leen approached the curve, downshifting the engine so it revved high as the truck headed onto the straight part of the road that finally turned onto the far edge of Ternaarderweg, she saw a group of soldiers standing. They leaned on poles, shovels, and guns, talking and kicking at the ground. It never failed to surprise her how normal the men looked, how some of them were dirty, and some clean, and they all were young, and seemed to have little to do – except torment a passing girl.
A soldier opened the gate to let out a truck. He had his back to her, and motioned to the driver to exit. At the gatekeeper’s side sat a barking German shepherd, beautifully striped with deep currents of black and brown, its snout long and full, its ears sharp–tipped triangles. The barks were low and rounded in sound, like the dog was aware of its own voice and wanted to use it to its full potential. When Leen had first seen one, she thought she might like to have a dog like those at the camp. But then she heard them, saw them straining at their collars that ground against their necks. The dogs’ fierceness scared Leen. They seemed beyond control, immune to any welcoming sound she could make, any wiggle of her fingers to come or stop or stay. The soldiers teased the dogs to make them bark and lunge and growl, while always holding on to the leash tightly, leaning back against the power of the animal.
The German truck inched forward, then stopped, waiting for Leen to pass. The soldier at the gate stepped aside, holding the metal gate. A bird swooped down low, passing over the lane, and just as Leen began to steer the truck around the corner, the dog suddenly ran out in front of her, barking.
It was still light out, the sky barely gauzed over by the approaching dusk. The dog came out of the shadows, catching the sun, a golden thing with its teeth snapping as it barked. It raced towards her door. There was no one else in the road, and the bird swooped back into the sky. In a half second she pictured the dog lunging, biting the salt from her hand, its teeth gouging a terrible wound in her palm, and then, without thinking, the paper of the salt packet crackling loudly against the steering wheel as her hand tightened around it, she pushed in the gas. She heard the engine revving in its gear before she registered that she’d floored it. She hit the dog square on, the bark strangling from a clipped bark to a yelp, then to nothing. The truck bumped roughly as if she was driving fast over the clumps in the fields, and Leen braked, hard.
Everything halted. The truck, the air, the sun, the bird, it all stopped. Everything except the bare ticking of the engine and a single thought:
I killed it.
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