Nether Lands: An Immigrant Guide

So your country is on fire. Your home is on fire and your bank is on fire and in the rattling belly of a bus or a plane you unfold an old map to show your daughter where you’re going. “This nail in the sea,” you tell her, and she takes the map in her fingers that are still fat with childhood. She holds it with such care and looks and looks, and somewhere in a back row someone is changing a diaper and the smell is everywhere. “It’s gone now,” she tells you, and holds the paper up. You look and see: the blue grid of the north sea has somehow spread, has somehow risen, and has somehow taken over the yellow triangle of the Netherlands.

“What?” you say, touching the paper—scratching at it. Perhaps a smudge. Perhaps a fold. The man who has the aisle seat—and who you don’t know and who is so tall his hair brushes the overhead compartment—notices your confusion and says, “Ochja don’t worry about that.” He smiles, and his teeth are perfectly straight but yellow. “It just happens sometimes. It’ll go away.” You frown at him, then gently take the map from your daughter, fold it back up. After you arrive and the ground is solid and the sea is kept at its hedges, after your daughter is asleep on a bench with her head in your lap, you unfold the map again. The raster of the sea has pulled back again, revealing the bed of the fingernail: the yellow triangle and then some, and you swear a crumbling of islands that wasn’t there before is now there, dotting the shore.  

You wake up to the klaxon of a raid alarm down your street and down the next street over and, you quickly find out, down the entire country. You’re convinced war has followed you across a continent and into the edge of the sea. You’re convinced, at that moment, that war will follow you to the end of time and there will be no hiding, not ever. You spent the day hiding under the dining room table, waiting for the whistle of bombs while your mother holds you and doesn’t cry. The next day at school you ask if the country is at war and a girl who’s not your friend but is nice enough tells you that they test the alarms every first Monday of the month.

“But,” you want to know, “what if war actually breaks out on the first Monday of the month?” The girl who’s not your friend laughs and says war won’t break out, not on the first Monday of the month. When, in the following days, the alarm rings across the Wednesday morning and the Thursday evening and the Friday night, you ask the girl, “What do those alarms mean?” The girl looks at you. “What alarms?” she asks, frowns. “There are no other alarms.”

Someone tells you the mists are spirits of scorned women. Old spinsters that died alone, that lure children into their thick and take them to the nether world. “They’re called the White Wives,” you’re told at a bar, one night when the mists grew especially bold. “Not the White Wives,” someone corrects the translation. “The White Women.”

“The White Women?” you ask, and everyone at the bar nods, says,  “Ja,”



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You went to school with a girl called Lisa. She had blonde hair that stopped in a straight line halfway down her back and she smelled like sheets washed in lavender and vinegar and left to dry in a hot attic. She had braces and spent half the lunch breaks eating whole-grain bread and the other half picking the grains from the metal, running her tongue over the tracks. Her lips were chapped and she may have said things to you, but you do not remember them. She may have helped you with your homework, but you do not remember how. You haven’t seen her since school, which is almost 20 years ago. You hadn’t even thought of her until that one evening at the train station, somewhere lost up north of the country. Somehow you recognised the back of her head. She was talking to a friend and you thought, Lisa, and when she turned to look at the clock, you quickly turned away and pretended to look at the vending machine. At the vending machine was another girl, blonde as well, and when she reached into her pocket for a coin, the fabric of her coat seemed familiar to you and with a shock you realised that she, too, was Lisa. You gathered your things, the scarf you draped over your bag because it’d been too hot, the bag you’d overpacked and which dug into your shoulder—you gathered it all and made to walk further down the platform, but the person waiting next to you was suddenly Lisa as well. You walked the other way and three more Lisas stood there, too, eating sandwiches with the waxed paper wrapping crunched in their hands. You paused for a moment, took a good breath. The train rolled into the station and screeched its breaks. All the Lisas started walking along with the slowing train, their postures slouched, their waxed paper balls in hand. The train stopped and opened its doors, letting out more and more Lisas.

You’re told that the woods are natural here, not man-made, not like where you’re from: no one has to put the roots into dry earth and pray for them to grow. A strong wind blows an acorn from a canopy and it sprouts the next day. It is a towering, shadowy thing by the time the next season rolls around.

“Really?” you ask in the car on the way there. “That fast?”

“Yep. That fast,” your friend says, smiling, and you’re not sure what shape humour takes in this country and whether this is it. Your friend parks on a soft shoulder and lets you out, fusses with putting the leash on the dog while you stand and stare at neat rows and rows of trees. The trunks are in line, the tops won’t touch, growing around each other in shy patterns. Nothing grows on the ground.

“I thought these weren’t man-made,” you say when your friend joins you, dog excited at their side.

“They aren’t,” they say. “They just grow like this. In line. Come on,” they turn to the dog, smile with a row of teeth. “Let’s go.”

You’ve only been here for a few months and you don’t understand the language very well. You’re on the bus and you know how to ask for one ticket but when the bus driver asks you something in return you don’t know what he means, so you have to laugh in a way that’s an apology.

You shake your head and he repeats himself, louder, and now you don’t understand him louder than before. You don’t respond, you blush and you sit down. The bus winds out of a suburb and into a wooded patch, and between two mounds of grass there’s a yellow exclamation mark of a pole, a bus stop. An old lady gets on and even though there’s plenty of seats, she comes and sits next to you.

“Do you like it here?” she asks you, speaking in a local dialect. You understand every word and you don’t know why. Her hair is a cauliflower helmet and she smells like butter and cookies. Even while sitting you’re taller than her.

“I’m still getting used to it,” you answer in your own language. “It’s a lot to get used to.”

“It is,” she answers in dialect. “I was born here and I’m still getting used to it.”

“I’m sorry, how come I understand what you’re saying?” you ask as the bus drives over a dike, road as smooth as ice. The old lady shrugs and says, “I don’t know. You’re the first one in years.”  

You’re on the train home and the compartment is empty but you smell tangerines. It’s a strong smell. Who ate a tangerine? When did they eat it? Did they peel it and throw the peel in the trash? Did they pull apart the segments and push them in between the cushions? Did they pluck apart the seams of the seats and squeeze the fruit into the foam filling, did they take the waxy orange and rub it on the windows—is that why there’s a blur of oil on the glass?

Did they bring on board a bag full of tangerines and then stand at the one end of the compartment, throw the fruit against every surface as hard as they could so they’d splatter on impact, so the juice would run down the walls and onto the gray linoleum? Did they enjoy it? Did they enjoy the tangerine? Do they eat tangerines at home? Do any of them? Does anyone eat tangerines at home? Do they save them for the train? For this train? For your train? For you?

You get off the train with the rotting citrus burning behind your eyes. You go home and shower and the smell is still there. You wash your clothes and the smell is still there. You go to sleep and the smell is in your sheets, in the hot pocket of your body. The next morning you look in your trash and find a long string of tangerine peel, oil beading in its pores, growing mold.  

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You don’t know how but somehow the class has ended up discussing your hijab for a full hour. Your political science teacher has dark blue jeans and sits on the table when he faces the class. He lets the five girls up front have their turns in saying what they think. “I just think,” says Lisa, “that you should just be able to see someone’s eyes when you talk to them.” There’s a murmur of assent from the right, dissent from the left, and then the teacher makes everyone quiet down to ask you if you agree. You hate talking in class. Your heart is burning a hummingbird hole in your throat when you say,

“But it’s not like you can’t see my eyes though.” Lisa doesn’t turn around to look at you when she answers, “I don’t know, it’s like, shadowy. It shadows your face. In my opinion.”

When you leave school that day there’s a thick drizzle in the air. You zip your coat up to your throat. As the girls around you step out onto the grounds, they wrap their knitted scarves up and around their heads against the rain. They pull them over and lower, over their brows and ears and noses. They step onto their bikes and you can’t see their faces anymore. You stand in the doorway for a moment longer. Lisa comes to stand beside you and wraps her own scarf around herself and says, “It’s not personal what I said in class.” And, “It’s just how I see it, you know?”

You shrug, like: “Maybe.” When you look up you can’t see her eyes. Even in the harsh strip lights of the school, a shadow has stolen her face. “See you tomorrow,” the shadow says, before it steps onto the wet grounds, and joins the other shadows on their bikes.

“Do you know why,” your lover asks, “the Dutch are so tall?” She’s wrapped around your back in the kitchen. She towers over you, makes herself small for you.

“Why?” you ask, already amused.

“In case the water rises,” she says, and stretches to her full length. Her head touches the ceiling.

The pretty boy with the sharp eyes asks why your lunch is weird and why your bread doesn’t look like bread. The other boys, pretty and not alike, hear his words like a wolf’s call and join in arooo, arooos, like: “Who brings dinner to school?” and, “Why does that smell?” and, “Is this why you smell too?” You go home and demand an embargo on your mother’s lunchboxes. She gets angry and slaps you and then goes to her bedroom and cries for a long time. When she comes out she says, “Then tell me what,” with a voice that makes you want to cry too. “Yellow cheese on white bread,” you say. “With cucumber slices.” She makes them for you and wraps them, on your instruction, in kitchen paper, then foil.

At school you eat your lunch with pride, holding the bread like a prop. At home you’re hungry and heat up some leftovers. When you take the plate from the microwave, a cheese sandwich has replaced the hot rice. You leave it on the counter, untouched. That evening, at dinner, your mother piles a red stew that turns into a cheese sandwich on your plate. You look at her, incredulous, and she doesn’t know what to say either. Little slices of cucumbers line the edge of the plate. You eat it, sobbing, and go to bed with a rumbling stomach. The next day at school you can’t bring yourself to touch your lunch. You ask a friend for one of her tangerines, but that too turns to a cheese sandwich in your hands. Heaving over a sink in the girl’s bathroom you tell your friend about what’s happening. She accidentally turns on the hand dryer by leaning on it, and over the grunt of the machine she says, “That’s not that bad though, is it?” She’s chewing on your tangerine-turned-sandwich. “I rather like a cheese sandwich.”

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Your husband takes a night job at the post office sorting through mail. You have small hours together when he comes home and you’re waking up, but he can’t touch you because his hands are too tender, cut up with little marks. If you have time, you soak them in a bowl of soda water while he’s bleary-eyed, falling asleep in the kitchen table. He sometimes jokes, feigning delusion, “Hanneke Nijkerk, Breedstraat 39, zipcode 8036PK, Zwolle.” If you laugh, he continues: “Johan Vlissing, Marnixlaan 40, zipcode 3501LP, Utrecht. Karel-Hein Groote, Mosterdstraat, zipcode … ”

One day you get home and the whole house has been rearranged alphabetically. The chairs (stoelen) in a pile with the pans (stoofpot) with a box of cream (slagroom) on top. The TV on the table with old, busted (tele)phones strewn around it. The couch (bank) has been shoved in a corner, and all the books have been tipped out of the shelves and onto it.

You’re furious. You’re tired and shouldn’t come home to this, whatever this is, you don’t have time or energy to clean the mess and you tell your husband as much, pulling the blankets off of him as he slowly comes awake. He has no idea what you’re talking about. He hasn’t done anything. He’s been sleeping. “I came home and went to sleep!” he shouts over your shouting. “Nothing else! Nothing else!”

You notice that his hands have bled, have crusted over, flaking red now. He notices it too. He doesn’t understand. “But I was asleep,” he says, quiet as you sit on the edge of the bed, closing your eyes.

“I don’t understand,” he says, again. “I was asleep all day.”

You bought a new bike and within a day it disappears. You locked it with three chains, strapped it to a tree, and still. You scream in frustration, and the next day a different bike has taken its place under the tree: an old one, one of yours, one that disappeared years before.

Your daughter hits a classmate and you’re called to come pick her up. She’s quiet at the principal’s office but loud on the way home, explaining that the boy told her to go back to her own country, to come back when she’s learned the language. “He deserved to be punched,” she says, full of conviction, and you have no idea where she got this confidence, this self-righteousness. Certainly not from you.

That night the mother of the boy calls. She screams at you over the line, and the shock of it is so strong you hang up nearly immediately. She calls again the next day. You try to apologise to her. She doesn’t listen. You try to reason, try to say, “Well, from what I’ve heard, your son—”

But she doesn’t let you finish. You hang up again. She calls the next night, and you let your oldest son answer the phone. It doesn’t make a difference. She calls every night for a month. You speak with the teachers at the school, who say you should speak with her directly. “I can’t,” you try to explain. “She doesn’t listen.” They shrug, nothing they can do.

At some point, the mother of the boy and her family move away. She still calls once a week. Sometimes she doesn’t say anything. Just breathes over the line, listening. Sometimes she’s doing something: washing dishes, typing on the computer.

Your daughter grows up, finishes school, moves out. Your oldest son marries. The mother of the boy calls every first Monday of the month. You pick up, hold the phone between shoulder and ear. Your hands are doing something else. There’s busy silence on the other end, and you listen to it, exhaling into the receiver.

The flatlands never end. There are no mountains, no hills, only horizon. You travel for hours, but they never end.


Written by Yael van der Wouden

Art by Dakota Peterson

Yael van der Wouden is a writer and mixed-bag diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. One time she rescued a mouse from being eaten by a snake, but when she took the mouse home the dog then got it. This still makes her sad. She reviews for Platypus Press and channels the beautiful spirit of Sir David Attenborough in the form of an advice column over at Longleaf Review. Her words can be found all over, and most recently at places such as Cotton Xenomorph, Split Lip Magazine, and Grimoire Magazine. She's currently working on a collection of short stories about women and monsters.