A.F. Th. van der Heijden – By Force
Once Dad had finally come out and said it, Mom had a total meltdown. She was even in the hospital for a while—rumors rippled through the family of a failed suicide attempt, but if so it must have been during Nico’s class trip to the countryside. One of his cousins claimed that Mom had ingested a dish of finely cut hair, a time-tested suicide method in the Far East. Nico couldn’t find a suicide note anywhere in the house, unless that’s how he was supposed to interpret Mom’s burial insurance policy, which was normally in the buffet drawer but, after she was taken to the hospital, turned out to be stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnet.
If the whispers were true, whose hair had his mother used when trying to kill herself? None of her own appeared to be missing, as she sat propped up with pillows, refusing to talk. Nico still had a full head of hair too, and the barber on the corner swept his customers’ locks into the hole at the back of the shop after every haircut. He wondered if Mom had gained access to the space beneath that hole, a basement perhaps, filled with raw material for wigs—brown, black, blonde, and gray curls all tangled up together, reeking of sebum, Brylcreem, and a choice selection of shampoos. “A dish of finely cut hair”… how would you choke it down, anyway? One pinch at a time, laid on the tongue and washed down with water? Nico put this hypothesis to the test by cutting off a lock of his own hair and swallowing it with the help of a glass of milk—not because he wanted to end his life, but to find out if the method was technically feasible. Milk proved to be a bad choice: its fatty texture made the hair form a clump, which got caught somewhere around his uvula (or so he pictured it, at least). He went around coughing for days. It seemed like a typically Chinese suicide method; after all, they gobbled down bird’s nests (or at least the kind composed mainly of swiftlet saliva). The magnet on the refrigerator door was shaped like a lizard, so that left him none the wiser.
Even in her morose and weakened state, Mom was still strong enough to forbid her son to join the Valkenburg Two—or the Second Litter, as she came to call her enemies, even though no additions to their household were anticipated. For a couple of weeks, Nico was entrusted to the care of his grandparents. On his way to their house after school every day, he would visit his mother at the Sint Lucas Hospital.
“Tell me, Niekje,” she once asked him, “did you know about this?”
“I didn’t notice a thing, Mom, honest I didn’t. They say you… I mean, if you’d used Japanese hair, or Korean, you would’ve… see, it’s thinner, straighter, sharper… it pierces straight through your intestinal walls, they say. Then you die a slow death.”
“No more of that nonsense.” She sat up a little straighter. “I’m talking about Valkenburg, you know that perfectly well, you little weasel.”
Nico focused all his attention on the matt blue grape he was screwing loose from the bunch on the nightstand, instead of just pulling it off.
“That’s a yes,” Mom said. “Right?”
He turned red and avoided her eyes. “I always thought they had numbers on the doors of the rooms at a boarding house.”
“Well, one thing I know for certain is that the landlady doesn’t normally sleep with the first guest who walks through the door.”
“You know, Mom… when we got there, he, like, finished every sentence with ‘Miss Cognée.’ ‘Oh, Miss Cognée!’ A couple days later it was ‘Hetty’ this and ‘Hetty’ that. Pffff. I got kind of sick of it.”
He popped the grape into his mouth.
“Oh, Niek…. oh, Niekje. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“God, Mom, all you asked was how I liked checking out the houses with Dad.”
“Nico, you’ve heard us fighting so many times, about all sorts of things, but mostly about all those women he ‘visits.'” Mom took his hand in hers; she felt so cold, as if she’d just thrown a snowball. “Don’t you sort of think you had a responsibility—no, look at me—to let your mother know what was going on?”
Now even her suicide was on Nico’s conscience, and not just the fact that she’d failed. “Hetty said I shouldn’t tell anyone.”
“A strapping young man of fourteen—”
“—almost fourteen is old enough to think for himself, right? Don’t try to pull that stuff on me, Nico.”
It was annoying when your tears pricked your nose like needles in a pincushion.
“Come on, Niek, seriously. Did she threaten you or something?”
“Not threaten me, exactly. Something different.”
“I want to know. I need to know.”
Even now that he was overwhelmed by treachery at every turn, all the blood still drained out of his head when he recalled that last conversation with Hetty, rushing down to his underbelly where it congealed into something wistful and smutty. “I have to go now and do my homework at Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
“Go, then. I know enough.”
Nico spit the grape seeds into a paper tissue and left the hospital room without saying goodbye. In his grandparents’ attic, he cursed Hetty as he threw down his seed at her feet. It only made him angrier to think that she, high in the hills of southern Limburg, was oblivious to his scalding libation. “Look, Hetty,” he whispered bitterly, “I don’t need your hands.”
Translated by David McKay