Sigmund Brouwer is back!! Thief of Glory is enjoying exceptional reviews and acclaim and I am so happy to be able to host him again. For those of you who have yet to read this awesome book (my review for Novel Crossing will be shared here at a later date), I invite you to read the chapter provided here and the backdrop, then pick up the book for yourself!
Question for Scavenger Hunt:
What object did Jeremiah receive from his father while Jeremiah and Pietje were fishing beneath the house?
What object did Jeremiah receive from his father while Jeremiah and Pietje were fishing beneath the house?
It’s a pleasure to be back with Rachel, and I definitely owe her a Timmie’s gift card (or three!).
On the day that Germany invaded Poland to start World War II, my novel’s character and narrator, Jeremiah Prins, had just turned school-age. He would have had zero comprehension of world-wide events, of course, but few of the adults around him in the Dutch East Indies would have had any inkling of what was ahead for them because of that invasion. Jeremiah’s father, like my grandfather Simon in real life, was a Dutch headmaster, and I can be fairly certain that the day of invasion in 1939 would have not have been remarkable outside of any minor domestic crisis.
Still, the storms of war had begun, and a few years later its dark clouds would descend on their idyllic life — on my father as a boy, and on Jeremiah, my fictional main character. I’m a father of two daughters, and it breaks my heart to imagine ever facing the need to say good-bye, aware that I might not return because of events beyond my control. I am haunted wondering about that final good-bye from my grandfather to his children, for Simon was taken prisoner-of-war by the Japanese, and died during the building of the Burma Railway.
In this chapter of Thief of Glory, I wrote the good-bye from Jeremiah’s point of view, and as I wrote it, I ache for the father who wants to say so much, but refrains because he wants to protect his sons from what he can foresee. It happens shortly after Jeremiah has schemed a way to get back at one of his older brothers. . .
A few mornings later, my father and stepbrothers returned home early after Japanese soldiers had arrived at school and told everyone to leave. Father further explained that our family was not to leave the house. Since Pietje and I were accustomed to entertaining ourselves, this had little effect on us. We were absorbed in our latest venture, sitting in chairs on the lawn near the foundation of the house.
Our house was built off the ground, supported by crossbeams on pilings. It was skirted by lattice meant to keep out larger animals. Beneath my chair was a machete. I held a fishing rod, and the line from the tip fed through a gap in the lattice into the darkness beneath the house. The tip of the rod was continuously quivering at the slight tugs that came at the end of the line.
Occasionally, Pietje would give me an inquiring glance and I would shake my head to indicate it was not yet time to reel in the fishing line. Matters like this required patience, and I wanted to be a good teacher.
Although he and I were not engaged in conversation, we didn’t sit in silence. As usual, geckos—chichaks—scrabbled up and down the walls, making little clicking sounds. I could not have guessed that within a year, I would be desperate to find them because we had resorted to eating them. The small lizards weren’t limited to the exterior of the house. At night, you’d see them near our lamps, waiting for insects attracted to the light. The bigger ones—the tokeks—rarely showed themselves.
Around us, the birds, too, twittered and squawked and added to the din. Tawny-breasted honey eaters, friarbirds, mouse warblers, scrub wrens, butcher-birds, orioles—all oblivious to the signs of a country under siege.
The Japanese had taken our radio, so we no longer heard news about the war. Jeeps and trucks continued along the streets, but now more and more of the soldiers were returning after weeks of battle and enjoying their respite. Troops of them ran around in white loincloths like overgrown toddlers in diapers, and it seemed to our ears that their screaming and chattering was no different than a monkey’s. They would enter houses at will to find food. Many had already been in our own home, inspecting the flushing toilets and opening and closing drawers to search for any objects of value.
That morning, it was less surprising than it should have been to see our father approaching us and carrying a folding chair to match the ones that Pietje and I were using. He set the chair down and sat beside us in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the movement at the tip of the fishing rod.
“Is there water under the house that I’m not aware of?” he finally asked.
“No.” I was cautious in my answer. Usually, my father was direct and impatient. Usually he spoke but didn’t listen.
“Aaah,” he said, as if that explained everything. But he didn’t spend much time around me and Pietje, so I doubted he understood why I had a fishing rod in hand, with the line running beneath the house.
He waited a few more minutes to see if I would explain. I out waited him. He must have had a purpose for joining us, and I had my fears in this regard. Earlier in the morning, I’d heard Simon yell in pain. More than once.
“Niels and Martijn have not slept well the previous nights,” he said. “Apparently they have had rats in their mattresses. Has this happened to you?”
“Yes,” I said. Each of the last three nights since the Governor-General had announced surrender, I’d moved the mattress onto the floor and slept on the mattress frame and bedsprings so that the rats could have their privacy and I could have mine.
“Rats in your mattress wasn’t something you needed to tell me?” he asked.
“It’s best not to complain,” I said. “I know you don’t like involvement in what happens among us, as long as the furniture doesn’t get broken.”
I was quoting his own words back to him and wondered how he would take this.
He remained calm. Very unusual, which made me more nervous. “So this means you suspect one of your brothers was responsible for the presence of the rats?”
“You don’t like tattletales,” I said.
“Niels had a hole in his mattress,” he said. “Someone had pushed a few handfuls of peanut butter into the hole. Same with Martijn. Naturally the rats began to explore when it was dark. Is this what happened to you?”
“I can’t say whether there was peanut butter in the hole of my own mattress. It seemed best not to put my hands in that deep. I wasn’t interested in letting a rat bite my fingers.”
Pietje’s head swiveled back and forth as he followed our discussion.
“Simon’s mattress was untouched,” my father said. “Do you find that significant?”
“If that is true, it would be best if Niels and Martijn didn’t know that,” I said. I was running a bluff. Niels and Martijn had been in my room first thing this morning to see if my own mattress had been tampered with as well. Certainly they would have checked Simon’s too.
“I suspect they already know. I found the three of them fighting a half hour ago. Furniture was broken, which is why I had to get involved. That’s when I learned about the peanut butter in the mattresses.”
“He swears he didn’t do anything.”
That answer disappointed me. I had actually been hoping for a medical report. Simon would have put up a good fight, but Niels and Martijn would have been furious at Simon, and I knew the effects of that fury.
“In this case,” my father said. “I’m tempted to believe Simon. You would think he’d know that if there were peanut butter in every mattress but his, naturally his brothers would suspect him and punish him for it.”
“You would think,” I said as neutrally as possible.
“A suspicious person might actually believe that someone else wanted revenge for the other day when Simon opened a certain envelope that had been addressed to a certain other boy in the family.” My father examined my face, but in this family, you learned early how to remain expressionless. “Tell me, Jeremiah, does peanut butter wash easily off the hands?”
I handed the fishing rod to Pietje and stood. I now knew the direction this was going. I unbuckled my shorts and lowered them to my knees, making sure my two pouches of hidden marbles were safe. I turned away from my father and took a deep lungful of air and held it. It’s best not to breathe during the initial few blows of a flat hand across the buttocks. It internalizes the cries of pain.
“Please sit,” my father said, not unkindly. “Our family has far greater things to worry about.”
I pulled up my shorts and buckled. Pietje gave me his inquiring look. I glanced at the tip of the rod. It was still quivering. “Not yet,” I told Pietje.
I resumed my seat in my chair and Pietje returned me the rod. “I haven’t once told you that I am proud of how you can draw,” my father said.
Often, at the end of a school day, while he sat at his desk and graded papers, I would sit at a student’s desk nearby and practice those drawings. It wasn’t art, but symmetry. I sketched buildings. His indulgence of allowing me time at something that wasn’t practical or school oriented told me of his pride. I was startled to hear him state it openly.
“Neither,” he said, “have I told you that I know you are a remarkable boy.”
My chest swelled with this praise, then deflated when my father said, “I’m going to miss you.”
“Are you sending me away?” I asked. Pietje must have come to the same conclusion. He clutched at my free hand in fear.
What I’d done by planting peanut butter in all the mattresses but Simon’s did deserve a spanking, but I hadn’t expected to be banished from the household. Of course, I would then be out of reach of Simon, so there was some benefit in it. Eventually, he’d figure out what my father had figured out.
“You’ve seen what is happening,” my father said. “The Japanese are taking over. Dutch currency is being replaced by Japanese currency. I’ve heard rumors that it will be illegal to speak Dutch on the streets. The Japanese know that to rule this island, they have to control the Dutch.”
“Accordingly, sooner or later,” my father continued, “a truck will arrive to take me and your older brothers. All the Dutch men are going into work camps, and Dutch women and children will go together into different camps. Boys over the age of sixteen are considered men, so Simon will be with us.”
I pondered this and had no reason to disbelieve it. It was strange how quickly I had accepted what was happening around us.
“Simon is only fifteen,” I said.
“The Japanese count ages differently than we do. On a day that a baby is born, it is his first year, and the baby is considered to be one. The Japanese will consider you to be eleven years old, not ten. I’ve changed your birth certificate so that it looks like you were born a year later. You are not tall, and they will believe you are younger.”
“You want me to be a nine-year-old?”
“A ten-year-old to them,” my father answered. “We don’t know how long this war will last. I need you to stay with your mother and Nikki and Aniek and Pietje as long as possible.”
Pietje let go of my hand.
“I know how you are,” my father said. “I don’t need to ask you to keep taking care of your younger sisters and brother. But I ask anyway, because it makes me feel better. I am already helpless in protecting my family.”
Now I was afraid. My father, admitting weakness?
“What I’ve heard,” he said, “is that when the soldiers order you from the house, you are given one hour to pack and you are only allowed to take what you can carry. I’ve already packed a suitcase that you must make sure to take. It’s the big brown suitcase with a red ribbon tied around the handle, and I’ve put it in your room. Don’t open it until you get to where they are taking you. Don’t let your mother open it either.”
I knew exactly the reason for this. My mother was not a practical woman and wouldn’t know what to pack. My father, on the other hand, was practical to the point of denying the existence of emotion. I was still reeling from his earlier admissions.
“I’m also asking you to have patience with your mother,” he said. “The way she is, is not her fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“That you must do everything possible to help her in everything. And when she is cruel or seems uncaring, don’t blame her for it. Her illness is no more her fault than catching a fever.”
“Illness?” If it was true in some way that my mother was not to blame for the way she was, perhaps it wasn’t my fault that she often ignored me.
My father reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled something out that I could not see and left it curled in the center of his closed hand.
“You may think that I don’t know you that well,” he said. “But that’s not true. It’s just that…” He took a breath. “Sometimes a man has to put so much energy into one area of his family that it appears he doesn’t care for other areas. When I’m gone, it will be your turn to watch over your mother.”
That seemed to satisfy him, for he left it at that.
“Your fishing rod,” he said. “It’s stopped moving.”
“Eventually it does,” I answered. “But a mouse can live for a lot longer time than you would expect.”
It was his turn to wait for more explanation, but two can play that game. Besides, I wanted to know what was in his hand.
“When the soldiers come for me and your brothers,” he said and looked back and forth between Pietje and me, “I will not give them the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurts to be taken away from you and how afraid I am for what will happen to you when I am not there to protect you. I don’t want you to cry, for we will not show them any weakness. Nor I will not say good-bye then or how much I love you, and I won’t even look back. So I’m saying it now.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “You don’t need to—”
Father moved to Pietje and pulled him in close, and to the astonishment of both Pietje and me, Father said, “Dag, lieve jongen.”
Good-bye, my loved little boy.
He released Pietje, then put a hand on each of my shoulders. “I love you. I will miss you.”
He leaned back. “More importantly, I respect you for who you are and what you’ve become. And I dread getting on the truck and leaving you behind.”
He opened his other hand and what I saw made me gasp far louder than the hardest of his spankings ever had.
It was a sulphide marble. Transparent green glass. With a miniature statue of a rearing horse in the center.
“I played marbles when I was boy too,” he said. “This was given to my father by his father, and not once did I ever risk it in a game. It is yours now.”
He didn’t add that it would be something I would have to always remember him, but I could hear it unspoken in the tone of his voice. This was as difficult for him as it was for me.
“I expect,” he said, “that you will add it to the pouches you hide in your shorts.”
I was astounded. How did he know about my other marbles?
“Good fishing,” he said. He was making a point that I understood. By not asking about why I had a fishing rod with a dead mouse at the end, he could be as stubborn as I was.
“Yes,” I said.
As he walked away, Pietje tugged on my hand, giving me no time to absorb what had just happened. That would come later, when I realized I’d just had my last real conversation with my father.
“Now?” Pietje asked.
“Now,” I said, turning my attention to my little brother. I gave him the fishing rod, and he began to reel in the line. I wasn’t worried he would get hurt. A poisonous snake would have killed the mouse within seconds before swallowing it and a bigger one would simply regurgitate the mouse as the line pulled. The fight between our bait and the snake that had taken it had lasted five minutes, so whatever we had on the line hadn’t been able to kill the mouse immediately and was so small that the mouse couldn’t make it back out past the inward facing bones of its throat.
To the satisfaction of both of us, we had landed a small python.
I gave the machete to Pietje and let him do the honors of chopping off the snake’s head, unaware of how that species would later take revenge for this act.
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