From Er moet iets gebeuren by Maartje Wortel, published by Das Mag in 2015. This short story is appearing in English for the first time in The Dutch Riveter.
‘Travel is nonsense,’ he announced. ‘The only thing you see is what’s already inside you.’—James Salter
Apart from an older sister and a note on the kitchen table, Reza’s father left her a field. The pony he had promised her for her tenth birthday never materialised, as Reza’s mother had predicted, but now the field is hers. It is a muddy patch of earth in the middle of the polder, hemmed in on all sides by two other fields, a path and the wide, water-filled ditch, where on summery days the men from the village fish for carp and the local youth hold ditch-vaulting competitions. On other days the young people drift along in rubber dinghies, drinking lukewarm cans of beer, and swim with the muskrats before lying down on the bank to dry, side by side, with their eyes scrunched up against the sun, the drops of murky ditch water leaving brown tracks on their cheeks. A paved path runs along the edge of the fields at a right angle to the water. There are often cyclists out biking and people out walking – with their dogs or with each other, when they have something to discuss. But usually it’s quiet, usually no one’s there.
Sheep and goats are all mixed in together in Reza’s field. They’ve grazed the ground bare, but want for nothing. Reza feeds the creatures fruit and veg from the leftovers she picks up every day from the greengrocer’s in the village. She places the crates filled with apples and raw vegetables on the back seat of her red Opel. Sometimes she takes a bite herself.
Near to where the field borders that of her neighbour there’s a small shed where the animals can shelter when it rains. Reza’s own home is an enormous metal camper she doesn’t travel around in, but merely moves to a different spot now and then. It’s usually parked as far away from the path as you can get. When you drive into the polder it looks like a spaceship landed during the night, with an alien life form lurking inside, waiting to explore Earth. The camper is designed to transport groups of people – bands on tour, travelling families – but recently Reza has been living there alone. The arrangement isn’t exactly legal, but the town council turns a blind eye because, even though her father hasn’t been back to the village in fifteen years, he used to be a well-known figure in those parts, or at least a person of influence.
‘Why, in God’s name, does someone like you live out in the middle of the polder?’ Reza’s sister asked her.
‘What do you mean, “someone like me”?’ Reza said.
‘Oh, come off it, Reza.’
‘Well, what? What do you mean?’
‘Someone who’s lonely to start with,’ her sister said.
‘I’m not lonely at all, that’s your take on it.’
Her sister broke a biscuit in half. ‘Fine, maybe lonely isn’t the right word. But you are alone.’
Reza hadn’t always been alone. She’s had had a lot of girlfriends in the past. She didn’t understand how she did it – all it took was to make eyes at a woman in the street and they’d come home with her to her field, to the camper. Some took a little longer than others, but she’d never had to make too much of an effort. Of course there were some who just wanted to see what it was like with a woman, who did it to have a story to tell, to get out of the rut, to satisfy their curiosity or to win a bet – that kind of thing. In that case, Reza would make even more of an effort to impress them, to make sure they wouldn’t forget her. Her sister said, ‘Those women might forget about you doing your best, but I’m willing to bet they’ll never forget about this camper stuck out in the middle of this muddy Dutch landscape. I once slept with a guy who lived in an old, abandoned primary school, keeping squatters out. Five classrooms, a gymnasium, a playground with two slides and a basketball court. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but I’ll never forget the building.’
‘Yes, well, that’s you,’ said Reza. ‘That’s just the way you are, hon. It doesn’t tell you anything about other people.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. If I’m like that, there’s bound to be loads of other people like that too.’
Reza knew her sister was right. That was precisely what had put her off living in town. Everyone seemed different, but they all turned out to be the same. It bored her. She longed for a simplicity that didn’t pretend to be anything else, that wasn’t looking for approval. Clouds, grass, sheep, goats, birds, water, mud, people walking, dogs let off the leash. She preferred seeing an ever-changing clarity over seeing a complexity that always stayed the same. She bought the camper from an old musician from Brabant and put it in her father’s field. Her father – the man who had left the family one evening, leaving a note on the kitchen counter that said I NEVER MEANT IT.
A field, a sister and a note. And Reza knew that was all she had to be getting on with. Ever since Mia had left her, more and more often she thought about leaving too. All she needed to do was get behind the steering wheel of the camper and drive off. Instead, she sat in the field and thought. Like everyone else, she could choose. To stay or to go. And in the end maybe it all boiled down to the same thing anyway.
Long, tanned legs covered with mosquito bites stretched out from under her bikini bottoms. Reza was wearing rubber boots, like she always did, whatever the season. On top she wore a tight white tank top. She was sitting in front of the camper on a garden chair, her eyes falling shut as she tried to read a book she was struggling to get through.
She was more or less woken out of her slumber by someone calling out, ‘Hello there! Miss! Miss!’ Over by the fence a woman who looked slightly familiar to Reza was waving her hands about.
Reza got up from her chair and, ashamed suddenly of her bare legs in the rubber boots, she walked over to the fence, the insides of the boots whipping against her calves.
‘Could you maybe help me?’ asked the young woman on the other side of the fence. Her cheeks were red with excitement, her hair was gathered in a messy ponytail. As Reza approached, she asked her, ‘Are those sheep yours?’
‘One of them is standing at the edge of the ditch, in the water. I thought I’d tell you – it didn’t seem like you’d noticed. Mind if I climb over the fence?’
Reza nodded. The sun burned right above her head.
‘Do you have a rope or anything?’’ the woman asked.
Reza looked over at the water. How could she not have noticed the woman, or the sheep, for a whole fifteen minutes? Three sheep had drowned in the years that she’d been living here, and Reza had thought the other sheep would’ve learned something from this. She’d thought they would’ve known by now not to go too near the water, but it seemed that animals, like people, were slow learners. She should have shorn the sheep, actually, like farmers do in the spring, slowly unwrapping each sheep to reveal another, smaller animal inside. But Reza liked the way they looked in their full fleece. If a farmer didn’t pass by soon on a tractor, she knew another sheep would drown. Two women were no match for a sodden, woolly sheep.
‘Yes, I should have a rope,’ Reza said. She looked around her. The woman was still standing on the path.
‘Come and have a look.’ Reza reached over the fence and the woman’s hand slid into hers. It felt a little clammy. They smiled at each other.
‘Do you live here?’ the woman asked as they crossed the field towards the camper.
‘Sort of,’ Reza said. ‘Actually, yes, yes, I do.’ She could feel the woman making her nervous. ‘My name’s Reza, by the way.’
Mia said her name was Mia. She even mentioned her last name, maybe out of false modesty or maybe for the opposite reason, because she hoped Reza would recognise it. She was Mia Borodovic, a celebrated actress. Reza hadn’t picked up on the fact that Mia was a famous face from TV. She’d probably seen one of the films she was in, but remembering faces had never been her strong point. ‘Did you really not recognise me?’ Mia asked later on. ‘Or were you just pretending not to?’
‘I really didn’t,’ Reza said. ‘Or maybe vaguely. I didn’t know who you were, anyway.’
‘A lot of people pretend not to,’ Mia said. ‘A lot of people pretend a lot of the time.’
Reza took a tow rope from the back of her Opel. The women walked over to the ditch. The sheep was standing there with mud reaching halfway up its body. It didn’t seem overly fazed by the situation and stood in the ditch as if it had never done anything else, staring out into the distance as if intrigued by the flat horizon. The other sheep stood at the edge of the ditch and watched their herd mate. Not a sound from them either. As Reza and Mia approached, the sheep scattered for a moment before crowding together again at the water’s edge, as if they were afraid of missing something.
‘If you ask me, it’s already given up the fight,’ Reza said.
Mia didn’t reply. In any case, it was clear that she wasn’t ready to give up the fight. She stepped into the ditch fully clothed and tied the rope around the sheep’s body. In the process she slipped twice in the muddy bottom of the ditch before stepping onto the side. Ignoring her soaking wet clothes she said, ‘And now, pull!’
Two women in a field pulling on a tow rope tied to a sheep. But no matter how hard they pulled, the sheep didn’t budge. They were the only ones moving.
‘Is there anyone you could call?’ Mia asked Reza after she had let go of the rope. ‘The fire department?’
‘Maybe the sheep doesn’t want to be helped,’ Reza said.
‘Maybe it walked into the ditch on purpose.’
‘An animal committing suicide?’
‘Yeah, I read about it in a book. There are birds that kill themselves by flying into mountainsides. Whole flocks of them.’
‘I don’t think that … ’
‘Yeah,’ Reza said, ‘you’re right.’ And, because she didn’t want to seem rude, she called the fire service, for Mia. The nice thing about emergency services is that someone on the other end of the line always says, ‘We’ll be right there.’
In the meantime, Reza got an idea. She gestured to Mia to follow her to the fence, to make sure the animals didn’t escape while she drove the Opel onto the property. Mia opened and shut the gate. Reza reversed the car in the direction of the sheep and attached the tow rope to the towing hook on the Opel.
‘You keep an eye out in case something goes wrong,’ she said to Mia when she got back into the car. She started the engine and put her foot on the accelerator, very carefully at first and then with ever increasing pressure. Slowly the sheep started to move. It rolled onto its side and then slid up the side of the ditch and onto dry land, ending up on its back with its four spindly legs sticking up in the air. Mia managed to roll the animal over onto its side by pressing against it with all her weight.
The sheep managed to look both exhausted and unperturbed at the same time. Just as Reza and Mia were standing next to each other, looking from the sheep to each other, with a twinkle in their eyes and the sun on their tired, contented faces, the fire truck sped into the polder, a red rectangle coming closer and looking more dangerous than helpful. The truck stopped alongside the field. Men in uniforms immediately jumped out from both sides. They acted the same way firemen do in the movies – heroically, as if they weren’t really firemen at all but were acting the part. Reza didn’t know that’s the way they did it in real life, too, but, then again, she supposed something must have inspired them to become firemen in the first place. One by one, the six men vaulted over the fence.
‘We don’t need you anymore,’ Reza shouted to the firemen, to spare them an embarrassing situation. She pointed to the sheep on the ground next to her. Black with mud, it looked like it had been on fire.
The firemen paid no attention. They ran across the field to the water’s edge and formed a circle around the sheep. They smelled of fire.
‘What the … ?’ said one of the firemen. ‘You got us racing out here for this? For nothing?’
One of the other men said to Reza, ‘It usually is for nothing.’
Mia said, ‘We’re sorry, but the main thing is that the sheep is still alive.’
‘Oh my god,’ said the fireman who had been angry just a minute ago. ‘That’s Mia Borodovic. I’m right, aren’t I? You’re Mia Borodovic?’
Mia nodded shyly. She blushed and Reza looked at her, at the dirty, sodden clothes clinging to her body, and wished the firemen would get back into the fire truck and disappear, uniforms and all.
‘This is our lucky day,’ the fireman said. ‘Mind if we take a picture with you?’
Mia laughed, shrugging her shoulders.
Once the men had finally left, Mia asked Reza if she had anything to drink. Reza fixed a couple of gin and tonics, with an extra dose of gin. The two women sat down in the shade of the camper. Sitting on a towel, leaning with their backs against the side of the vehicle, they had a couple of drinks. It was only after a while that Reza and Mia looked over at the sheep, which was still on its side and breathing very rapidly, but not long after, they forgot about it because Reza kissed Mia, doing her very best, better than all the other times, and pushed her to the ground, feeling the warm skin of this new woman and tasting gin and mud, and they were so drunk and turned on that they just kept kissing and were oblivious to time passing and to the people out walking along the path, and they made love on the ground in front of the camper while night fell and the sound of the insects grew louder all around them.
Reza had spotted her girlfriend on TV that Wednesday evening and had changed the channel in irritation. She couldn’t stand sharing Mia with the other people watching, seeing her body move about on the screen. She had discovered that when Mia was acting she behaved in the same way she did with her. But Reza was the only one allowed to touch and kiss Mia’s burned skin. When Mia was a child she’d been staying at her grandma’s, when the deep-fat fryer fell from the counter and burned her. Dark strips of skin ran from her navel to her breasts, as though she, like the sheep, had been wrapped in an extra layer. Mia avoided any roles that required taking off her clothes. But nakedness was never a problem when she was with Reza. ‘Intuition,’ she had said. ‘I knew it wouldn’t bother you. From the start I saw the way you looked at me.’
Reza had been lying in bed for a couple of hours, waiting for Mia to come home, and she felt her waiting once again grow into an unreasonable anger. She should go outside and drink a beer under the stars, with the Plough of Ursa Major securely above her head. She should calm herself down. Instead, she lay in the bed in the back of the camper, with the pillows propped against the rounded metal surface. It was quiet and dark and cold. Tip Marugg had once written that, when he was a boy, his bedroom was a small black square within a larger black square. When he looked through the chink under the door and saw his parents turning off the light, he was once again part of the larger whole, of the large black square. Reza wasn’t sure she had remembered his words correctly, but the thought of the large black square comforted her when she felt isolated or alone. She thought, ‘My father is somewhere too. So is my sister. And so is Mia, right now.’ But she couldn’t hold on to this thought for long. It was as if there was still a chink of light shining under the door. She thought, ‘Well here I bloody well am, lying alone in my small black square in the middle of the polder, waiting for my girlfriend to come home.’ She kicked off the covers and went to the kitchen, where she poured sunflower oil into a deep pan, waited until the oil started bubbling and then tossed in some popcorn and covered it with a glass lid. She waited until she heard the corn popping against the lid, the hard, inedible kernels turning into popcorn, and the camper started to smell of oil. How quickly one thing could turn into another. She sprinkled the popcorn with salt, walked back to the bed and called Mia. No answer.
The digital alarm clock showed 2:08 in the morning when Reza heard a car approaching. Close to the field the motor stopped and someone got out. A little later she heard someone fumbling with the door, heard a key in the lock. For a couple of seconds she was afraid it was a burglar. There wasn’t much to take, but out here in her field she easily could be raped. She was her only protection.
It was Mia. She could tell from the sound the straps on her boots made when she kicked them off, from the light tread of her footsteps. Mia lifted the lid from the pan and took some popcorn. Someone who’s there. Someone who comes home.
But Reza still felt uneasy.
Lately Mia had been making a habit of coming back to the van in the middle of the night on ordinary weeknights – after rehearsals, or so she said. It wasn’t really something you could double-check and know for sure. ‘In the end, everything is one big rehearsal,’ Reza said. She’d tried to make like she was joking, and Mia had said, ‘You got it, sweetie. So keep on practising.’
‘Hey, you still awake?’ Mia asked when she came into the sleeping compartment.
‘What do you think? That I can sleep while you stay out all night?’ Reza jumped out of the bed and pulled her nightgown down over her bottom, shivering. She thought, ‘I shouldn’t be starting this,’ but the thought slipped away, and of course she did start it.
‘What about you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you have a good time?’
‘It was fine,’ Mia said. ‘Just a rehearsal.’
‘Let me smell your fingers then,’ Reza said, as calmly as she could.
Mia looked at her in disbelief, her pupils dilating. She was so bloody beautiful, as most actresses are, as if being pretty was an art too.
‘So come on, let me smell them!’
‘Jesus, what’s wrong with you?’ Mia asked.
‘Why can’t you just let me smell your fingers if there’s nothing wrong?’
Reza grabbed Mia’s wrist and pulled it towards her. She offered no resistance: Reza could have waved Mia’s hand about, could have tenderly kissed her palm or used it to slap herself in the face, but instead she pulled it towards her until it was just under her nose, like it was a drumstick she was about to bite into.
‘Smell them then!’ Mia shouted. ‘Smell them, for fuck’s sake. What do you think? That I’ve had my fingers in someone else? That’s something I should’ve done a long time ago, you jealous bitch. Lick them. You might taste something.’
Reza loosened her grip, let go of Mia’s wrist, and saw her sad, angry eyes. Mia said Reza made her feel sick, and Reza said forgive me, really, and that she was sorry, really, and that she wasn’t herself. But inside she knew that she was right: all the rest had been an act, all the tiptoeing around. She could have told Mia all the things that came into her head, like how she had been lying there waiting and that it wasn’t just about tonight, she could have told her how long she had been waiting already, she could have hurled hundreds of good and bad thoughts around the cabin, out loud, but the words would have bounced off the steel because Mia wouldn’t hear them, Mia knew what Reza was like too. If Mia as much as went to the bathroom alone, Reza heard herself asking ‘Where are you going?’
Mia walked out of the camper. Reza heard the door slam behind her, the door that Mia had just walked in through a minute ago. She was more or less gone, but not quite completely. To disappear from Reza’s life she still had to leave the polder.
A few minutes passed before Reza sprang into action. Barefoot, she jumped out of the camper and ran over the field to the gate. Mia was sitting behind the wheel of her car. Reza shouted across the field, ‘Come back, please, come back!’ She screamed across the field, ‘I love you!’ She stopped running, stood still, waited for a few seconds, looking at the bright glare of the headlights, but of course nobody got out. Mia started the engine and took off along the road that led out of the polder.
Reza could have run along the path, could have followed Mia in her red Opel. Instead she looked at the taillights and gave up. She was so unbelievably tired. She threw her head back and looked up at the inky-blue sky that first would grow blacker and blacker and later would colour again into blue, purple, pink, until the sun rose above the polder and light shone through the cracks. Reza thought of the rescued sheep and she knew it wasn’t just the sheep she had saved that first day, but herself and Mia too. Even if Mia ended up forgetting everything about her, there would always be the story about the sheep. It still hadn’t drowned.
By Maartje Wortel
Translated by Sarah Welling and Margie Franzen
Maartje Wortel is the author of several novels and short-story collections, the latest of which, Er moet iets gebeuren, was nominated for the Fintro Literature Prize and the ECI Literature Prize. She is also a journalist and writes columns for NRC Next and Trouw.
Sarah Welling is a web editor and literary translator, who grew up in Eindhoven and previously worked as a bookseller and teacher. Her published translations include Wytske Versteeg’s prize-winning psychological thriller The Boy, as well as pieces for the Dutch literary magazines Das Mag and 2.3.74. She also creates illustrations and other combinations of words and pictures.
Margie Franzen is a translator from Dutch, German and Spanish, based in Madison, Wisconsin. She translates almost anything (auto)biographical – from literary essays to medical documentation. When not writing, she dreams up ways of getting more translated literature off the presses and into the hands of readers. More on her work can be found at www.margiefranzen.org.