Anton de Kom (1898–1945) was a Surinamese political activist and author of the 1934 book We Slaves of Suriname, the first decolonial account of the nation’s history. He lived in The Hague and was married to Petronella Borsboom, a Dutch woman. They had four children.
De Kom made his name in the Netherlands as a human rights activist. He spoke out against colonialism as well as the exploitation of contract workers in Suriname and India. Wary of De Kom’s anticolonial ideas, the Dutch Intelligence Service labeled him an enemy of the state and detained him for three months without due process during one of his trips to Suriname. A working-class revolt calling for his release was bloodily suppressed. De Kom was ultimately expelled to the Netherlands in the 1930s, where he faced substantial financial problems due to the Great Depression and his own infamous past. Suffering from severe exhaustion, he was involuntarily confined to a psychiatric facility in the winter of 1939.
There were three of them.
One of them had a red, bulbous nose—a whiskey nose, Nel called it. Anton had learned this phrase from her, despite never understanding how drinking whiskey could lead to such a facial deformity. He didn’t notice anything special about the features of the other two in the brief moment he stood face to face with them. All three wore white coats, like orderlies or doctors, but with the sleeves rolled up as if they meant business.
They had politely rung the doorbell. “The door!” he shouted from his small desk, but no one responded. The doorbell rang again. “Shit,” he muttered, reluctantly getting up and resting his book face down to mark his place.
“Where is everybody?” he called out as he headed toward the front door. It was strangely quiet. Exasperated, he shook his head and decided he’d have to give the children a stern talking-to. He couldn’t have trivial matters interrupting his work. How many times had he tried to explain to them that he couldn’t be disturbed when he was writing? Not for a sandwich, not for a game, and above all not for the damn door. Shaking his head, he unlocked the front door and opened it. And there they were: the white jackets, the rolled-up sleeves, the square faces, the one with a whiskey nose. He swiftly slammed the door shut. Intelligence Service, he thought. They’ve finally come to get me.
“Mister De Kom,” called one of the voices from the other side of the door. “Please open the door.”
“Fuck off!” he yelled. “Fascist pigs!”
Someone started rattling the doorknob.
“I’d rather die than go with you!” He pressed his back against the door, pushing with all his might, even though it was already locked. The men didn’t seem to be trying to come inside. That is, except for the rattling at the door, which on second thought sounded more like someone impatiently drumming their fingers against the doorframe.
He breathed hard through his nose and tried to think.
Why were they here? Did it have to do with his book? He hadn’t published any new articles in some time. It had also been a while since he’d given any lectures. So then it had to be about his book. Or was it because of what had happened back in Paramaribo? Was it still not over, then, as Nel had wanted him to believe all this time, but which he’d never been completely convinced of? Did they want to lock him up now, in the Netherlands, just as they’d locked him up in Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo? Would they still try to pin the blame for the protesters’ deaths there on him?
He heard them talking quietly, conferring over their next move, perhaps. He didn’t budge.
The hall was long and narrow. It seemed a physical impossibility for three white brutes and himself—not on the short side either—to fit in here. He tried to collect his thoughts, but they kept hopping away from him like so many fleas. What could these people want from him? Who were they? If it was the Intelligence Service, why were they wearing white coats?
The silence in the house still felt eerie. An indefinable premonition overcame him. He looked up. At the end of the hallway, a few paces away, were his children. The oldest two—amber-skinned boys with lanky limbs—in front, with the two younger ones peering out at him from behind the bigger children’s arms and legs. Fear and curiosity on their faces.
It threw him for a moment. What were they doing there? And where was their mother? Where was Nel?
“Papa,” said the oldest. “Come on.”
“Huh?” he uttered awkwardly, bewildered by their presence. “What did you say?”
“Papa, you have to open the door.”
“What are you saying, son? You do know, don’t you, who those men are, here at our door? They’re coming to take me away, don’t you get that? You know they’ve been after me for years.” He spoke hurriedly, in a daze. “Quiet now. I have to think. How can I get away? Maybe go out the window, and then I can jump onto the downstairs neighbors’ balcony and—”
“Pa,” the oldest insisted. He didn’t say anything else. That single word was stressed in a way he’d never heard before from his children. He stared at his son sternly. His son stared back, scared but determined not to let it show.
“What’s the matter with all of you?” he snarled at them. “Have you forgotten what happened in Suriname? And everything since we’ve been back in the Netherlands? They’ve been following me for years! Isn’t that enough?” He spun around and yelled at the wooden front door. “What more? What more do you want? Am I supposed to let you into my house now too? Scumbags! Filthy, fascist, colonialist bastards!” He started pounding his fists against the door. “Leave me in peace! Leave me alone, do you hear me!”
It was quiet on the other side of the door.
The children stared at him wordlessly.
He listened to his heavy, rapid breaths. It was as if someone else was breathing. He closed his eyes, clawing through his hair with his fingers.
The oldest boy began to talk to him in a low voice. “Papa, it isn’t those people. From the Intelligence Service, I mean.”
Stung, he stared at the boy. “What? What do you know about all this?”
“Pa, you have to step aside.”
“No child of mine is going to tell me what I’m supposed to do! Have you completely lost—”
He took a step away from the door, toward the children. In a flash, the oldest two exchanged glances—he saw it clearly—and leaped forward. In a smooth, carefully coordinated movement, they grabbed him tight and dragged him away from the door. The oldest boy held his bewildered father back. It didn’t cost the boy much effort, as his father was much too surprised to resist. The other child unlatched the door in one movement, and the next instant, the hall was full of white men.
Three white brutes. And a tall black man.
As it turned out, they all fit just fine.
Their touch was bewitching: as soon as they seized him, he tumbled into the depths of his consciousness. A viscous darkness overwhelmed him, slowing down his thoughts. He knew that he was screaming, since he felt his throat burning. But no sound could penetrate the darkness. Nothing could enter. A brief flash of pain as he took a punch at an orderly and hit the wall instead. The pain got stuck in the thick darkness and died out before reaching him. It was pitch-black. And so quiet.
The neighbors streamed out of their houses in droves to gawk at the lunatic next door being carted away like a mad dog.
From the depths of his consciousness, he saw what they saw.
They nudged each other, pointing at their scared, angry neighbor being removed from his home. Just look at this, they said. Look at them carrying him because he refuses to walk. His legs kicked wildly in the air as they dragged him away by the armpits. The orderlies must have been accustomed to such behavior; it was evident in how they restrained him. An ambulance was waiting for them. There was a stretcher, and they needed leather straps to tie him down. They left the van door open too long; anyone could look at him lying there. How he yelled and cursed and bucked against the straps! How shameful to leave the scene under such public scrutiny! Some said they’d been expecting this all along: the moment when he’d reveal his true face. This neighbor from some far-off country strutting around as if he were as educated and civilized as them—imagine that! Taken away like a criminal, or what do you call it, like a nutcase. The grimace on his face—let’s be honest here—was no human expression. Just look at his unkempt, frizzy hair, that mouth warped by madness, the helpless squirming, the wordless cries. He simply wasn’t a human being, at least not as much of one as you and me, the neighbors proclaimed.
Among them was a woman. She was thin, partly because of her build, partly because hunger had dissolved what little fat she had under her skin. Her children—three lanky boys and a little girl with a full head of pitch-black hair—nestled anxiously against her as they watched their father being tied down. The woman held her back straight out of habit, but she could not prevent her stomach from sinking in from shame and a strange sort of remorse. Her face was wet with tears. No one spoke to her, no one thought to comfort her. Only her smallest child, the girl, who was standing closest to her, felt the drops falling in her hair and instinctively wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs.
After an eternity, the orderlies slammed the door to the van shut. The engine roared. The neighbors took a step back to let the van through. The van took its time driving away.
His name was Anton, but that didn’t matter anymore. He was once important. As a writer. As a resistance hero. His ideas—and the persuasive force with which he shared them—made him beloved and feared. But whoever saw him now would not think of him as that tall, handsome man. He was no longer that intellectual, that headstrong adventurer. He was a savage. A menace. A screaming, threatening lunatic with crazy hair and an even crazier look on his face. A creature so wild that you could count on him flying at your throat once unloosed from his bonds. He would tear you apart as soon as he got the chance. But he was tied down as the van drove away. He knew he couldn’t move, and this made him pull at the restraints more fiercely. Meanwhile, the houses on his street passed by in the van’s window frame. At the corner was the cigarette shop. He shouted, “Stop right now!” because he’d gotten a newspaper there this morning. His daughter had tagged along with him, asking for a lollipop. He’d bought one for her, telling the shopkeeper to put the rest on his tab. The shopkeeper obliged, shaking his head. The memory seemed to belong to someone else, someone he had nothing to do with, but he yelled “stop,” because he wanted the memory to be his, because he wanted to walk up to the cigarette-shop keeper and be recognized as the man from this morning with his little daughter.
The ambulance slowed down. At last, they would let him out. This was all a big mistake, that much was obvious. The ambulance stopped, and Anton saw that the traffic light had turned red. “No,” he screamed, wanting to say that this wasn’t how things were supposed to be, but it was as if all words had left him. An old woman stood quietly at the curb. She was waiting until she could cross the street, and by chance she looked in through the ambulance window. When she realized that someone was in the van, she took a closer look, curious to discover who was there. When she saw him, she clasped her hand to her mouth, petrified, staring at him as if caught in the grim reaper’s gaze. He languidly bared his teeth and growled at her. They kept staring at each other, one in shock, the other snarling like a wild animal, with only the van window between them, until the van moved forward and they disappeared from each other’s sight. He felt something uncontrollable well up in his chest and yielded to the feeling. The men up front in the ambulance, who hadn’t batted an eye at the growling from before, glanced at each other. Their patient was sitting in the back of the van roaring with laughter, as if it were all just a big show. They shook their heads, bewildered by this sign of insanity.
Of course, they couldn’t have known that while in the back of the van, he’d stared out at many a startled woman or child, frozen in fear by so much color in a human being, so much black as they’d never seen in anyone before, apart from the soot-smeared bogeyman that scared the living daylights out of children each December. Only now he was tied up in a loony bin bus, which only contributed to the fearsomeness of his appearance. This made him laugh despite the situation he found himself in, or indeed because of the situation he found himself in. Because he could not help but wonder how he’d reached the point of being too much for this world.
“Do you know why you’re here, Anton?” asked the doctor who appeared at his bedside.
“I didn’t say you could address me by my first name,” he answered. He was trying to sound superior. He was also trying to keep the angry hissing that filled his head out of his words.
Unfazed, the doctor apologized, saying, “You’re right. Now, Mr. De Kom, do you know why you’re here?”
Maybe it was better not to respond.
The doctor continued. “Your wife called us. She says that you’re suffering from exhaustion.”
Anton stared right at his feet. They wouldn’t get him. Not this easily, in any case.
The doctor continued, as if he hadn’t expected any answer from him at all. “Your wife believes you’re no longer yourself. You threatened to do something to her and the children, did you not?”
“Lies,” he growled. Was he saying this to himself or only to the doctor? Where was Nel when they’d come to pick him up? And why had the children opened the door? What had the oldest boy said again? It’s not the Intelligence Service, he’d said. How could he have known that?
He snorted loudly. “Nothing of the sort. I would never hurt my children.”
“Your wife says you’re aggressive. How do you think you’ve been lately?”
He tried not to think of his rage, of the hissing. The restraints chafed his wrists. They had even managed to tie one at his throat. Don’t panic, he thought, don’t think about how you can’t move, about how you’re stuck in the position they’ve placed you in. Don’t think about the confinement, the lack of space, the strangers standing too close to you. He breathed heavily through his nose, his jaws clamped together, as he kept staring at his feet. Don’t react. Don’t speak. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t do anything.
“How do you think your mood has been lately?” repeated the doctor.
He shook his head. His whole body shook with the movement. Including his wrists bound in the straps fastened to metal rails on both sides of the bed.
“We’ll keep you here for a little while. You can rest for a bit.”
The hissing swelled, deafening, overpowering. He yanked himself toward the doctor. Alarmed, the orderlies held the bed down. “I can just relax here?” he repeated through gritted teeth. “I’d rather have you leave me alone.”
“We will leave you alone. That’s precisely what I said. We’ll give you so much rest that you’ll soon be your old self again.” The doctor held up his hands in a soothing, disarming gesture. Oh, how he ached to slap those hands away! He wanted to strike the man down with a single blow. Straight down to the ground. Along with all his talk and deceitful questions. Furious, he straightened himself up in bed as best he could and screamed, “I’ll never again be the way I once was! Look at me! All of you made me the way I am now!” The anger broke through everything. He welcomed it like an old friend and abandoned all self-control. “They pursued me,” he shrieked, his voice as high as a woman’s. It didn’t bother him. Nothing bothered him now. “They constantly keep an eye on me. Breaking in to go through my papers. Keeping me from doing my work . . . They . . . They . . . They arrest me and throw me in a stinking cell in the tropics for months and months without due process! They put me on a boat. On a boat! And ship me to this country, away from everything I love!” He strained against the straps that held him down, flinging his body to and fro on the bed. He realized, without a doubt, that he had nowhere to turn. They had him caught. He flung his head around on his neck and screamed as hard as he could. There were no words. There was only the anger that had grown deep within him, month after month, stronger and stronger. He yelled and hissed. He screamed and groaned. The doctor nodded almost imperceptibly at the orderlies holding the metal bars on the bed secure. They pushed the screaming man back against his pillow. One orderly instructed him to hold still, as if he were a little child. The doctor said: “It’s all right, Mr. De Kom, settle down now. You’re clearly stressed. I’ll give you something in a moment to calm you down, but first I’d like to explain to you what we’re going to do. With you.”
“You’ve already done enough,” he snorted.
“I haven’t done anything, actually. Not yet anyway. I don’t know what you’re talking about. My apologies. You can explain it to me later. But I see without a doubt that you’re indeed suffering from exhaustion.”
“Bastard! Rotten bastard!”
“We’re going to put you to sleep. Your mind and your body.”
“Dirty, fascist pig!”
“Your body needs rest. That’s why we’re starting with a sleep treatment. This means—come bring all the items here, Janneke—that we’ll keep you in an artificially induced sleep. This is Janneke.”
“Don’t touch me, do you hear me? Keep away from me!”
“No, no, there’s a good chap,” shushed the doctor. “Janneke is the nurse. Don’t be scared, Mr. De Kom. You’ll get a shot and then you’ll sleep. We’ll keep you in a deep, long sleep throughout the upcoming days. Ms. Janneke will wake you up every now and then to feed you and bathe you, and afterward you can sleep some more.”
The woman grabbed his arm without further ado and turned his elbow over so that she had the veins under his skin in sight. The men held him pressed against the mattress, their expressionless faces close to his. The restraints that kept his wrists tied to the bed cut into his skin. He looked at the big vein in the soft flesh on the inside of his arm. Vulnerable and naked to the approaching injection needle. He closed his eyes then—and cried.
“Everything will be fine, don’t worry.”
“The most important thing now is that you rest.”
“Then we can talk more about your treatment.”
“Everything will be fine.”
Sleep brought dreams: a playground of thoughts and shapes given no opportunity to rise into consciousness. They’d just given him more sleeping pills so that he would stay out of the reach of nightmares. Or so that consciousness would at least have the upper hand over delusions and he would still have some grip on reality. So that he would still have some sense of who he was, where he was at that time. Sadly, the sleeping pills were just strong enough to hand him over, helpless, to the memories he believed he’d tucked away, memories he thought he’d banished, killed for good. But they were still there. And each of them had grown in the meantime, fused in fact, had become deformed in the depths of his mind, and they were coming to terrorize him in endless guises. He fell asleep and walked straight into his own personalized hell. In the meantime, the nurses attended to him unlovingly but with care. They straightened his sheets, checked to make sure he was still tucked in, and said to each other, He looks so peaceful when he’s sleeping! Not at all like a wild man.
Sleep was not at all peaceful. For starters, as always, the dead were there.
There was a Javanese man with a remarkably gentle face. His skin was light and youthful, not yet tanned by the strong sun he worked under all day, the corners of his mouth not yet marked with the worn grooves that sweat and tears carved into the faces of his older workmates. This Javanese man didn’t even know how old he was. Fifteen? Anton guessed. He was back in Paramaribo, sitting at the little counter at the complaints office that he’d set up. Workers came there to express their dissatisfaction regarding their work conditions. The Javanese man with the kind face didn’t know how old he was. Maybe he was older, Anton suggested, maybe twenty? He didn’t have a clue about his age, so Anton wrote down 18 years old after his name to be done with it.
The Javanese man wore a simple, clean shirt with a short collar and sleeves that ended just above the elbows. The Muslim headdress on his black, close-cropped hair was an attempt at a mature look that proved insufficient, as it was contradicted by his beardless cheeks, the slight, gentle curve of his chin, a little mound upon which you could imagine a mother not too long ago having placed a kiss when he was upset and needed a bit of comfort.
Without being asked, the Javanese man said he was married. He’d been very lucky in that regard, given the scarcity of good women. His wife was young and beautiful, and they were madly in love. She was pregnant, and that was why he’d come in search of Anton. His boss didn’t intend to honor their agreement. He was charging more and more money for the provisions he obligated employees to purchase from him. The Javanese man didn’t see any way out, and now there was a child on the way. He didn’t finish his thought. Panic burned in his eyes. He’d heard that Anton could ensure his future. Anton logged his complaint and said, I will help you. You and your wife and your unborn child.
As for what happened next, he didn’t dare think any further. Now he was no longer in Paramaribo, but in a hospital bed where he lay in a persistent sleep, trapped in slow-motion dreams, the Javanese man stepping into his field of vision without any hesitation. He was still wearing that same headdress, that same shirt. The bloody hole at his stomach, that was new. Anton looked away from it, closed his eyes, but the image remained. The Javanese man walked traceless circles around his bed. He kept asking him the same question, quietly, feebly. Where is my child? Have you seen him somewhere? Where is my child?
With each step from the Javanese man, Anton felt his chest cave in deeper. Just as he was feeling that anxiety was crushing him, he managed to get out of his dreamed-up bed and walk away—only to find out that the Javanese guy was following him. The young man stayed just a few steps behind him, and he was motionless, almost not present, as he kept asking for his child. His words hooked themselves into Anton’s back, and each step he took was heavier than the one before. Now others were drawing near. Men, women, even children. Some he knew for sure had not been in the revolt, the revolt that had taken place because of him and had caused people to lose everything. Some had died, and he himself had been imprisoned, unable to do anything for anyone. Some of the dead who now sought him out weren’t on his conscience. But they were still the dead, and so they came along in the flow of people who’d had something to do with Anton. They told their stories to him, and he thought, This is what I’ve always imagined, people’s stories, only why am I not writing this up, and where am I? His angst grew with each difficult step he took. The procession of followers took on sinister forms, and he felt as though he was dragging a tail behind him, as thick and wide as an alligator’s, slow on dry land. I have to go find a river, then I’ll be faster, he thought, just before his thoughts were dissolved in a choir of whispered reproaches.
He knew that his body wasn’t with him. He knew that it was lying far away in the asylum bed. But what could he do about it?
A cold sweat pushed its way out of his dream and dripped down his face. Since an observant nurse was nearby at that moment, she wiped the sweat dry with a washcloth. He doesn’t have a fever, she remarked to her colleague, but still he’s sweating bullets. He heard her voice in the distance but couldn’t emerge from his sleep. Consciousness came in cold gusts and was never full-fledged. It only came into play when there was something there outside himself: voices without bodies, a creature at his bed adjusting his sheets, his arm, his face, without him knowing who or what was there tidying up. There was only the abyss, which he forgot in the next gust of consciousness and from which he awoke terrified, over and over again.
He’s walking up a hill. There’s no path, just well-trodden weeds and the remains of felled trees with twisted tree trunks stubbornly clinging to life as stunted twigs with bright green leaves. Some goat is bleating in the distance. The sound doesn’t go with the place. Goats don’t live here. The climate is too warm and too humid. And yet the bleating grows louder the higher he climbs, without the animal ever revealing itself. The sun is burning his head, and sweat is streaming down his neck and back. From time to time, his feet get caught on the plants winding along the ground, and he goes stumbling again over a fallen tree. When he’s finally standing at the top of the hill, he isn’t surprised by what he finds: a wooden structure in the shape of a gallows with a rope ending in an iron meat hook, the hook’s point and a good deal of its curve disappearing into the torso of a man. He’s still alive, Anton observes. Blood drips along his bare skin, merging at a low point on his side and dripping intermittently into the dark sand below. Anton falters, recovers himself, and walks slowly around the hanging man. The man’s feet, he sees, are tied to his hands behind his back. He’s close enough to see the man’s irregular breathing. The hook is stuck straight through his stomach and liver, between the ribs, coming out again at the front side of his torso. Anton doesn’t know how long he’s been hanging there. It’s unclear how much longer he’s going to live.
The bleating from the goat is deafening.
He’s walked a full turn around the man and is now standing before him again. The man opens his eyes. They look at each other in silence.
Faya siton, he hears the voice of his mother singing softly, soothingly. No bron mi so.
Fire stone. Don’t burn me.
He woke up with a jolt.
Someone was standing at his bed. An apparition he felt more clearly than the previous moments when sleep had released its hold on him. This one had a fixed form. And a scent. He smelled soap, the kind used for washing cotton fabrics. The sweetish odor of talcum powder. He forced himself to stay with the scent, his thoughts reaching out like tentacles into the depths, loosening, one by one, until he shot loose and floated up to the lit surface, and the apparition became sharper, a shadow, a woman.
“Help me,” he whispered.
“You’re awake,” the voice said, startled. “I don’t believe that’s the goal here. I’ll call the doctor.”
“No, no.” His voice got stuck behind a wall of dry flesh.
“You sound hoarse, wait, have a sip of water.”
He felt his body, heavy as lead, being pulled up. In reality, it wasn’t his body but his spinning head being lifted up. A hand behind his neck. “Here. Drink.”
The edge of a glass pushed against his lips. He opened his mouth. The water rolled down his chin.
“Careful,” the voice said.
He pushed his lips more firmly against the glass and tried it again. Cool water in his mouth. Salvation from the dryness. He drank with big, greedy sips.
“Good, good, go on. That’s good.”
She took the glass away. His head dropped onto the pillow once more. He swallowed and then whispered, “Help me.”
“What did you say?”
It felt like he was screaming his lungs out and all that was coming out was a barely audible sigh. “No more sleep. Please. No more.”
The woman simply stood next to his bed and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t succeed in opening his eyes. Did she intend to restrain him? he wondered. Was she one of them? Was she poisoning him with her medicine, keeping him quiet with sleeping pills so that he would never bother anyone again? And if she was the enemy, why did she have the warm hands of a mother?
“Take it easy,” she said. “Take it easy.”
Who are you? he wanted to ask. And why are you doing this to me?
“You’re just going to have a nice sleep again.”
She let him go and in the same instant the mist raised up behind his eyelids. The woman vanished, and with her the world.
He dreamed he heard his mother singing. It was a lullaby he passed on from her to his own children. The lines reverberated through time and space, a canon in which the generations mirrored one another. Faya siton, no bron mi so. Agen masra Jantje e kiri sumi pikin. Nel loomed up out of the darkness. “What a lovely song,” she said, “and what does it mean?” He said, “It’s a lullaby, so it’s hard to translate it.” She laughed, saying, “Just try it anyway, for me.” He did as she asked. “Fire stone, don’t burn me so. Master Jan has killed a child again. It’s old, very old,” he said. “Slave women would sing their children to sleep with it. It’s about the stone placed in the fire whenever a crying child awakened the master’s anger. The master would hold the glowing red stone against a leg or arm. Burn away the child’s skin. Sometimes the master was so exasperated he’d throttle an annoying child.”
He repeated the words tunelessly. The song had outgrown its meaning a long time ago, but Nel recoiled in horror. “Why would you want to sing such a thing to children?” she asked. “It’s awful.” He looked at her with empty eyes, explaining, “I wasn’t the one who came up with it. It was left with me.” His voice echoed in the bedroom.
He woke up. The first thing he saw was an especially wide and round behind. It moved back and forth, back and forth, a swaying rhythm he couldn’t look away from. He remembered the buttocks of the maid at his parents’ house when he was small. And how he’d watched, hypnotized, while she mopped the floor. How she used her hips, topped with buttocks like two full round moons, for an extra boost of power.
The behind rotated away from him. There was a woman’s lap, behind a spotless white apron. Then a rump, bent over, and a face. White, blue-veined skin, bushy eyebrows. Soft eyes. A voice that had rung out in the background of his dreams said, “You’re awake! Good. It’s time to eat.”
The woman pulled up a chair, the fabric of her skirt rustled as she sat down. Now he was looking into her face, full as the moon. She mechanically stirred a spoon around in a deep plate, took up a spoonful, wiped the bottom of the spoon against the edge of the dish, and fed him cold porridge. He weakly opened his mouth and swallowed the porridge down. She gave him four, five bites, and then he shook his head to show he didn’t want any more. She held the full spoon in front of his mouth until he obediently took a bite. Then she put the plate away and wiped his face with a towel. The white cotton smelled of soap.
The nurse carefully assessed him, looked at the clock on the wall, and recorded something in a notepad. “The doctor said you won’t get any sleeping pills today.” She paused and waited until he was looking at her. “Because of the visit. Do you understand?”
He closed his eyes.
His name came from far away.
He opened his eyes. The light in the room had changed. The nurse stood next to his bed again.
“Good morning, Mr. De Kom. How are you feeling?”
He tried to sit up. His arms, lacking strength, collapsed. “You can just keep lying down,” the woman whispered. She pressed one hand against his chest. Her other hand held a bowl. When she was sure that he would no longer try to get up, she started to feed him. At regular intervals, she brought the metal spoon from the bowl to his mouth. He had to swallow quickly to keep up with her rhythm. He felt the porridge sticking to the corners of his mouth. He could not remember how to wipe it away. His tongue slid out against his lips, but instead of licking away the porridge, he spread it further. The nurse scraped it up with the spoon before it reached his chin, just as he used to do with his children when they were still small. When they were still helpless.
“Well done,” she said. She showed him an empty bowl.
She grabbed a clean washcloth that lay ready on the metal cart near the bed and wiped his mouth off with it. She stopped to check her work. He stared her down.
“You won’t get any sleeping pills.”
He looked up. “Why not?”
“Because of the visit.”
The next thing he knew, the porridge seemed to be working its way back up his esophagus. He swallowed hard a couple of times, scratching his throat and letting out a loud burp.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded his head heavily.
She put the empty bowl, the spoon, and the wet washcloth back on her table. Still looking at him, she realized she’d forgotten the napkin tucked in the top of his pajama shirt. She smoothly slid it out from his shirt and started to push her cart to the next bed. Her powerful behind swung away from him as he asked, “When?”
“When is the visit?”
No one took note of the small black boy wandering leisurely through the market stalls. He wore a short-sleeved shirt. His pants had sharp ironed pleats. Over his shoulder hung a leather schoolbag. As he walked, he stuck his hands in his pockets. His relaxed pace as he walked through the stalls gave him a peaceful, somewhat elderly demeanor. The market women were talking to each other about the heat, about their lack of money, a small harvest, a birthday party they’d attended, about each other, and about the customers who at this time of day would rather stay inside at home. Fragments of their conversations invaded the boy. From time to time, he stopped walking to listen longer to a conversation that interested him. With a curiosity as familiar to him as his own skin, he recorded the gestures that accompanied the spoken words. He paused by the women who, overcome by boredom, had fallen asleep on the ground near their cookware. He looked at their still, sleeping faces and then walked on. Neatly stacked vegetables with names that tickled his imagination—Chinese long beans, watercress, aubergines—lay near small huts with shimmering yellow and red peppers. Small piles of fruit that gave off a sweet scent were carefully arranged near cassava roots, still dusty from the ground they’d been pulled out of. There were pink pieces of salted meat and dried fish, stiff as wood boards.
At the end of the row of stalls, he picked up his pace. He left the paved road behind, taking the smaller alleyways, running over the cart tracks through dark sand back home.
Each day when he left school, the boy made a small detour through the town. His mother didn’t know anything about this. She thought he was coming directly home from school, and as obedient as he usually was, she assumed he wouldn’t do anything other than what she’d asked. He genuinely believed that since he came home at the same time every day, she wouldn’t notice that although the distance between the school and their house on Ponterwerf Street was less than a ten-minute walk, he spent well over twenty minutes coming home. And he was right: she never noticed. And so he wandered, sometimes to the market, sometimes to the waterfront, and sometimes to the old folks who contemplated life from improvised benches under the shadow of the mango trees.
When he came home one day, his mother wasn’t there. He read the note she’d left on the kitchen table saying she was delivering an order. He stood there, sticking his chin in the air and listening. It was perfectly quiet in the house. With a faint smile, he pulled a book out of his schoolbag and climbed into his dad’s easy chair. This morning, the Tilburg friar who taught Dutch history at his school had passionately spoken about the heroic deeds of Piet Hein and Michiel de Ruyter. The friar was a gifted storyteller who wanted to offer his history lessons to all the schoolchildren in the tropics. The white students sat in the front row benches in the classroom. The colored students like Anton sat in the back rows. All of them listened breathlessly to the heroic tales that the friar revealed. During recess, they acted out the stories on the playground. After the lesson, the friar had taken him aside, saying it pleased him that the boy showed such an interest. He gave him a book so that he could delve further into the subject at home.
His grandma found him like this even before his mother came home: reading a book in the only easy chair in the quiet, cool house. He hadn’t heard her come in. The old woman, who wasn’t actually his grandma but his father’s great-aunt, stood for a moment in the middle of the room, looking at the child. “What are you reading?” she asked. He startled but smiled broadly when he saw her familiar face. He greeted her, dropped his gaze, and was suddenly lost again in the pages of his book.
“Is it that interesting what you’re reading?” the woman asked softly. He nodded, without looking up from his book. “What is it about, child? Come, teach this old woman something in her old age.” He willingly looked up from his book and answered, “It’s about Michiel de Ruyter, Grandma. He was a hero.”
The old woman took a seat in the chair across from him and asked him how he knew for certain that De Ruyter was a hero. “Because the teacher said so,” he answered. “And there were others, too. Hugo de Groot, Piet Hein, Willem de Zwijger.” He counted the names on his fingers. His grandma held out her hand, and he gave her the book. She twirled it in her hand, leafed through the pages; it was obvious to him she wasn’t really looking at it. “It’s pretty,” he said, his voice soft and enthusiastic. “According to the teacher, Michiel de Ruyter was one of the greatest heroes.” Her eyes shot up from the book to his face. Frightened, he shut his mouth, afraid he’d said something wrong. She frowned at him for an instant and then, as if she’d decided something, said, “Come.”
She stood up, walked to the door, and carefully wriggled her callused feet into her sandals. “What are we going to do?” asked the boy, puzzled.
She answered, “We are going to go for a little walk.”
She led him to the gallows field, which wasn’t too far from his house. It was a simple piece of land that he often passed without giving it any particular thought. In the field was a wide circle of tamped-down earth with a tree here and there. The field itself was actually not more than a man-made platform, a flattened hill, an unfinished place aiming to elevate a statue that was still missing. Looking at it now, holding his grandma’s hand, a menacing feeling crept over him. It was the first time he’d felt aware of the world’s mutability. How the light could shine in such a way that what seemed firmly entrenched could suddenly come to life. The nature of elements that once remained hidden was now laid bare. His fingers clasped the old woman’s hand more tightly, although it was certainly possible that it was her holding onto him more securely. He looked up into her face, soft and old, overlooking him. She pointed to a low wall that stood in the shadow of a government building. She wished to sit there.
With each step they took, dust wafted up from their feet. The old woman panted lightly. The city was quiet, apart from the faint tapping of a donkey cart in the distance. “What is this place for?” he asked when they had reached the wall and the woman had sat down with a sigh. She didn’t react, maybe because she was catching her breath, maybe because she couldn’t find the words. He moved next to her on the wall, waiting for her to speak. When she finally did, it seemed to him that she was talking to herself and had forgotten him. “This is a place from long ago. A very bad place.” Her voice—a voice that didn’t normally suffer from tremors, a voice like a clock that rang out orders each hour of the day, a voice where even caresses sounded like commands—was no longer that of his grandmother. It sounded so terribly like someone else that the young Anton had the feeling he was right there sitting next to an apparition, someone out of a distant past who had now crystallized to talk about long ago.
“We prefer not to talk about the past,” she continued.
“Because you’d rather not think about it,” he guessed. She shook her head. “Some things you don’t want to think about anymore, and nevertheless you do. They’re too big to completely forget. We don’t talk about it, not because we forget, but because we don’t want to sow hate. It was a bad time. A time of hate. And hate, my child, reaps hate. Do you understand that?”
She fell silent. He looked straight into her face, waiting for her to continue.
Finally, she said, “Your teacher spoke to you about heroes.”
“Michiel de Ruyter,” he offered up.
She nodded. “Listen to me, Anton. It’s good to know about them. They were great men who did great things. But there are also other great men that your teacher didn’t tell you about.”
“What kind of men?” he asked.
“Our men, Anton. Look.”
She directed her arm toward the little field, pointing out to him the things he didn’t see. “There,” she said, “exactly between those two buildings stood a gallows. It was there all the time. Even when no one was hanging from it. A simple wooden post. That was all. When there were more, and therefore more slaves, then they raised up more gallows. There, there, and there. I once saw six hanging at the same time.”
“Why were they hanged, Grandma?”
“Because they believed in freedom. They were also heroes. Just like your Michiel de Ruyter. And they were hanged here so that we all could see how such heroes ended up.” She paused, wiping away the sweat that beaded her forehead with the back of her hand.
“So that’s why it’s called gallows field,” mumbled Anton, as he looked from his grandma to the field. “I thought that it was just a name.”
She grabbed his chin and looked him in the eyes. He startled at the intensity of her gaze. “Nothing in the world is merely a name, boy.”
She suddenly turned him loose, patting him roughly on the head. She started to talk quickly, as if she wanted to be done with it all. “They were hanged here. When they were dead, they hauled the bodies from the gallows and chopped off their heads. To scare the rest of us who weren’t at the hanging, the heads were posted on thick, wooden stakes.” She pointed to a place exactly in the middle of the low field and grew quiet. He dared not ask her more and remained, motionless, sitting beside her. When she stood up, he followed her. Hand in hand, they walked away from the field back home. Just before they were at the corner, she muttered, “The worst were the vultures. They would already be circling the field before the slaves were hanged. They sense death coming, vultures. Did you know that?”
He shook his head.
He didn’t know that about the vultures. And the rest. The rest he hadn’t known, either.
Excerpted from the 2013 novel De man van veel [Anton de Kom—The Man of Many], by permission of Prometheus Publishers, Amsterdam.