In an amazing coincidence, we were already planning on running this excerpt from The Discomfort of Evening today as part of our Women in Translation Month coverage, and lo and behold, the book just happened to win the International Man Booker this morning! Congrats to Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Michele Hutchison, and to Graywolf and Faber and Faber.
I was ten and stopped taking off my coat. That morning, Mum had covered us one by one in udder ointment to protect us from the cold. It came out of a yellow Bogena tin and was normally used to prevent dairy cows’ teats from getting cracks, calluses and cauliflower-like lumps. The tin’s lid was so greasy you could only screw it off with a tea-towel. It smelled of stewed udder, the thick slices I’d sometimes find cooking in a pan of stock on our stove, sprinkled with salt and pepper. They filled me with horror, just like the reeking ointment on my skin. Mum pressed her fat fingers into our faces like the round cheeses she patted to check whether the rind was ripening. Our pale cheeks shone in the light of the kitchen bulb, which was encrusted with fly shit. For years we’d been planning to get a lampshade, a pretty one with flowers, but whenever we saw one in the village, Mum could never make up her mind. She’d been doing this for three years now. That morning, two days before Christmas, I felt her slippery thumbs in my eye sockets and for a moment I was afraid she’d press too hard, that my eyeballs would plop into my skull like marbles, and she’d say, ‘That’s what happens when your eyes are always roaming and you never keep them still like a true believer, gazing up at God as though the heavens might break open at any moment.’ But the heavens here only broke open for a snowstorm – nothing to keep staring at like an idiot.
In the middle of the breakfast table there was a woven bread-basket lined with a napkin decorated with Christmas angels. They were holding trumpets and twigs of mistletoe protectively in front of their willies. Even if you held the napkin up to the light of the bulb you couldn’t see what they looked like – my guess was rolled-up slices of luncheon meat. Mum had arranged the bread neatly on the napkin: white, wholemeal with poppy seeds, and currant loaf. She’d used a sieve to carefully sprinkle icing sugar onto the crispy back of the loaf, like the first light snow that had fallen onto the backs of the blazed cows in the meadow before we drove them inside. The bread-bag’s plastic clip was kept on top of the biscuit tin: we’d lose it otherwise and Mum didn’t like the look of a knot in a plastic bag.
‘Meat or cheese first before you go for the sweet stuff,’ she’d always say. This was the rule and it would make us big and strong, as big as the giant Goliath and as strong as Samson in the Bible. We always had to drink a large glass of fresh milk as well; it had usually been out of the tank for a couple of hours and was lukewarm, and sometimes there was a yellowish layer of cream that stuck to the top of your mouth if you drank too slowly. The best thing was to gulp down the whole glass of milk with your eyes closed, something Mum called ‘irreverent’ although there’s nothing in the Bible about drinking milk slowly, or about eating a cow’s body. I took a slice of white bread from the basket and put it on my plate upside down so that it looked just like a pale toddler’s bum, even more convincing when partly spread with chocolate spread, which never failed to amuse me and my brothers, and they’d always say, ‘Are you arse-licking again?’
‘If you put goldfish in a dark room for too long they go really pale,’ I whispered to Matthies, putting six slices of cooked sausage on my bread so that they covered it perfectly. You’ve got six cows and two of them get eaten. How many are left? I heard the teacher’s voice inside my head every time I ate something. Why those stupid sums were combined with food – apples, cakes, pizzas and biscuits – I didn’t know, but in any case the teacher had given up hope that I’d ever be able to do sums, that my exercise book would ever be pristine white without a single red underscore. It had taken me a year to learn to tell the time – Dad had spent hours with me at the kitchen table with the school’s practice clock which he’d sometimes thrown on the floor in despair, at which point the mechanism would bounce out and the annoying thing would just keep on ringing – and even now when I looked at a clock the arms would still sometimes turn into the earthworms we dug out of the ground behind the cowshed with a fork to use as fishing bait. They wriggled every which way when you held them between forefinger and thumb and didn’t calm down until you gave them a couple of taps, and then they’d lie in your hand and look just like those sweet, red strawberry shoelaces from Van Luik’s sweet-shop.
‘It’s rude to whisper in company,’ said my little sister Hanna, who was sitting next to Obbe and opposite me at the kitchen table. When she didn’t like something, she’d move her lips from left to right.
‘Some words are too big for your little ears; they won’t fit in,’ I said with my mouth full.
Obbe stirred his glass of milk boredly with his finger, held up a bit of skin and then quickly wiped it on the tablecloth. It stuck there like a whitish lump of snot. It looked horrible, and I knew there was a chance the tablecloth would be the other way around tomorrow, with the encrusted milk skin on my side. I would refuse to put my plate on the table. We all knew the paper serviettes were only there for decoration and that Mum smoothed them out and put them back in the kitchen drawer after breakfast. They weren’t meant for our dirty fingers and mouths. Some part of me also felt bad at the thought of the angels being scrunched up in my fist like mosquitoes so that their wings broke, or having their white angel’s hair dirtied with strawberry jam.
‘I have to spend time outside because I look so pale,’ Matthies whispered. He smiled and stuck his knife with utmost concentration into the white chocolate part of the Duo Penotti pot, so as not to get any of the milk chocolate bit on it. We only had Duo Penotti in the holidays. We’d been looking forward to it for days and now the Christmas holidays had begun, it was finally time. The best moment was when Mum pulled off the protective paper, cleaned the bits of glue from the edges and then showed us the brown and white patches, like the unique pattern on a newborn calf. Whoever had the best marks at school that week was allowed the pot first. I was always the last to get a turn.
I slid backwards and forwards on my chair: my toes didn’t quite reach the floor yet. What I wanted was to keep everyone safe indoors and spread them out across the farm like slices of cooked sausage. In the weekly roundup yesterday, about the South Pole, our teacher had said that some penguins go fishing and never come back. Even though we didn’t live at the South Pole, it was cold here, so cold that the lake had frozen over and the cows’ drinking troughs were full of ice.
We each had two pale blue freezer bags next to our breakfast plates. I held one up and gave my mother a questioning look.
‘To put over your socks,’ she said with a smile that made dimples in her cheeks. ‘It will keep them warm and stop your feet getting wet.’ Meanwhile, she was preparing breakfast for Dad who was helping a cow to calve; after each slice of bread, she’d slide the knife between her thumb and index finger until the butter reached the tips of her fingers, and then she’d scrape it off with the blunt side of the knife. Dad was probably sitting on a milking stool next to a cow taking off a bit of the beestings, clouds of breath and cigarette smoke rising up above its steaming back. I realized there weren’t any freezer bags next to his plate: his feet were probably too big, in particular his left one which was deformed after an accident with a combine harvester when he was about twenty. Next to Mum on the table was the silver cheese scoop she used to assess the flavour of the cheeses she made in the mornings. Before she cut one open, she’d stick the cheese scoop into the middle, through the plastic layer, twist it twice and then slowly pull it out. And she’d eat a piece of cumin cheese just the way she ate the white bread during communion at church, just as thoughtfully and devoutly, slow and staring. Obbe had once joked that Jesus’ body was made of cheese, too, and that was why we were only allowed two slices on our bread each day, otherwise we’d run out of Him too quickly.
Once our mother had said the morning prayer and thanked God ‘for poverty and for wealth; while many eat the bread of sorrows, Thou hast fed us mild and well,’ Matthies pushed his chair back, hung his black leather ice skates around his neck, and put the Christmas cards in his pocket that Mum had asked him to put through the letterboxes of a few neighbours. He was going on ahead to the lake where he was going to take part in the local skating competition with a couple of his friends. It was a twenty-mile route, and the winner got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it. I wished I could put a freezer bag over his head, too, so that he’d stay warm for a long time, the seal closed around his neck. He ran his hand through my hair for a moment. I quickly smoothed it back into place and wiped a few crumbs from my pyjama top. Matthies always parted his hair in the middle and put gel in his front locks. They were like two curls of butter on a dish; Mum always made those around Christmas: butter from a tub wasn’t very festive, she thought. That was for normal days and the day of Jesus’ birth wasn’t a normal day, not even if it happened every year all over again as if He died for our sins each year, which I found strange. I often thought to myself: that poor man has been dead a long time, they must have forgotten by now. But better not to mention it, otherwise there wouldn’t be any more sprinkle-covered biscuits and no one would tell the Christmas story of the three kings and the star in the East.
Matthies went into the hall to check his hair, even though it would turn rock hard in the freezing cold and his two curls would go flat and stick to his forehead.
‘Can I come with you?’ I asked. Dad had got my wooden skates out of the attic and strapped them to my shoes with their brown leather ties. I’d been walking around the farm in my skates for a few days, my hands behind my back and the protectors over the blades so they wouldn’t leave marks on the floor. My calves were hard. I’d practised enough now to be able to go out onto the ice without a folding chair to push around.
‘No, you can’t,’ he said. And then more quietly so that only I could hear it, ‘Because we’re going to the other side.’
‘I want to go to the other side, too,’ I whispered.
‘I’ll take you with me when you’re older.’ He put on his woolly hat and smiled. I saw his braces with their zigzagging blue elastic bands.
‘I’ll be back before dark,’ he called to Mum. He turned around once again in the doorway and waved to me, the scene I’d keep replaying in my mind later until his arm no longer raised itself and I began to doubt whether we had even said goodbye.
Excerpt from The Discomfort of Evening. Copyright © 2020 by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. English translation copyright © 2020 by Michele Hutchison. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.