When I was six, my parents told me we were going on a holiday to meet my mother’s parents, my Opa and Oma Australia, who lived on the other side of the world.
‘Where it is summer,’ Mama said.
But soon their plans changed, and only my younger brother was taken; my sister away to her friend’s, and I to my grandparent’s one-bedroom house on the flatlands, between the railway and the dyke.
‘Where is my bed?’ I asked.
Mama said, ‘Do not fuss so.’ ‘She is like that,’ she said to my Oma.
The room was cold, a crucifix above the double bed with Jesus staring down with tormented eyes.
That night, I lay between two heaving mountains staring into the darkness. I thought of my baby brother and my mother’s face and my own warm bed. I was sure that the itchy blankets were infested with freezing mice, pink and hairless, crawling up to nibble my toes.
A hippy woman collected me each morning and dropped me off at school. Her crochet clad children sat in the backseat beside me and whispered about my orphaned state.
‘I could never abandon my children,’ the woman said, shaking her head as she handed me a baby-blue cardboard box in which my naked sandwich mingled with the papery smells of its container. The other children went home for lunch, but my mother could not impose on the woman to drive the child four times a day.
In the evenings, my grandmother sang in the Gregorian choir. They had deposited me in the pew nearest the altar where paintings of anguish and murder surrounded me. As I listened to my grandmother’s voice reaching for the Lord, I lowered my eyes and tried to pray for my sins. They must be the cause of this.
After two weeks, they started coming through the letterbox, envelopes full of sunshine, summer, warmth and bliss. Missing you. Me? But no photographs. I ran out screaming into the whiteness of winter and walked onto a frozen stream. I could not remember my mother’s face. The ice cracked, but there was no risk of drowning as I stood knee-deep in black water.
That night, I sauntered guiltily before my elderly grandparents, warning them for slippery stretches on the pavement as we made our way to the church—repeated sermons, priests, echoing ceilings and tormented faces. But the Lord was not above us. He hovered by the stone floor, squeezing my feet to numbness.
The light changed.
I strolled through rainy fields when the village children called out to me; did I know tropical people were visiting my grandparents?
Running to see, I wondered why those magnificent strangers would come to my Opa and Oma’s ticking clock, silence-drenched, one-bedroom house?
I watched my baby brother on my mother’s lap. He didn’t recognise my white, winter face. He turned his sun-kissed head from from me because I looked so different from them now.
©2020 Anita Salemink