I was a tomboy in those days. But I didn’t know that. If I’d heard anybody say so, I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what he meant. I had scabby knees. My fingernails were black-rimmed with dirt. But to me that was just normal. So was working. It was just something I’d always done.
So when I was given a doll as a birthday present, I had no idea what to do with her. I didn’t like her very much so I buried her in the cabbage patch. I’d been told that was where babies came from, so I thought I might as well help Nature a bit.
Life was tough in those days. In the swampy lands where I grew up, deep in the south of the Netherlands, it helped if you were a tomboy. It was no place for little princesses. You just had to survive. And as far as I knew then, surviving wasn’t something a princess had to worry about. She didn’t have to do anything apart from enjoy life, make herself look nice and comb her hair.
November. The most exciting month of the year. The butcher sharpens his knife. The slaughtered pig is hanging from the ladder. Slit open from throat to tail.
The butcher hands me the knife. It is my princely task to cut the last sinews and get the animal’s heart out. As if it were the last and most precious charm in a necklace, to join kidney, liver and spleen.
I hold up the bleeding heart trophy to show my parents. But they haven’t got the slightest shred of pride, so they can’t show any. They have other things on their minds.
Summer arrives. It brings fairs and yearly markets. And the travelling salesman. When he comes into the farmyard he assesses me as if I were a horse. From head to toe. I’ve heard my parents arguing for months. And now I understand what it’s all about. I know that this year the salesman won’t be selling anything. He’s come to buy. It’s not even that he’s buying me, I think I’m more some kind of present. One less mouth to feed, that’s the deal.
The salesman plants me in what I see as a house for a princess. I don’t know that a terraced house is different from a castle. In this castle I can hear voices coming from behind the walls and see women staring at me through the windows. There is no vegetable patch, just flowers. What use are colourful leaves you can’t eat?
I‘m supposed to buy vegetables and meat from a shop. But every time I get into an argument, because I don’t want vegetables with flabby leaves or meat which isn’t fresh. I can never understand why I have to give money for such rubbish.
My husband doesn’t treat me so badly. Like some sort of Professor Higgins, he patiently shapes his own Eliza. But the scabs on my knees don‘t disappear. They just move to my soul. A secret place where the other women can’t see them. Though their eyes grow even bigger, and their mouths even sharper.
By the time I find my first child in the cabbage patch, I’ve learned how to act like a lady. But I’m not one. Though I’m no longer a tomboy. I am something in between, which actually means: nothing. An empty husk.
The baby gives the women an opportunity to invade my house and have a good look around my world. Doing this, they show me how I will never become one of them. I don’t care. What does bother me is how the more I appear to be a woman just like all the others, the more my heart is bleeding.
It is November now. I can smell the pig hanging from the ladder. While my husband is away out on the road, the faces of the women turn into enormous eyes and mouths, piercing and shrieking.
I take the baby and walk out of my captivity towards the swampy lands. I have to survive. The only way is to find a fresh heart.