About the Author

Kristen den Hartog

Kristen den Hartog is the author of the novels Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. Her most recent book, The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and explores the life of their father’s family during the Second World War. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

Books by this Author
And Me Among Them
Excerpt

Even after I have reached the pinnacle of my growth, I still find safety in my yellow room, a museum holding the souvenirs of my existence. My collections of pine cones and pressed leaves are here, as are the stacks of tattered comic books I’ve read a hundred times. There are miniature soldiers as well, salvaged from my father’s childhood and passed from him to me. Feet molded to tiny platforms, they wield weapons and bugles, and stand at attention as I rise up, up, pushing right through the roof to look down on the little world below.

I can see out, all the way to far-off lands, and I can see back, to years and years ago; place and time unravels in all directions. My eyes and ears are many times the size they should be. My heart is swollen. My bones are weak. But something good can come from even the most terrifying things. For everything that is taken away, something else is given.

So here I am, head in the clouds. Family photographs resting in my huge hands. I hold the pictures by their edges, the way I was shown to as a little girl, and I see me and my mother and father locked into the grains of silver. My thumb can obliterate a house or a row of people, so I take great care as I crack open the flat, drab photographs to release us all in a spill of colour.

First to come is my father James. I hover over him as he makes his way through town on his postal route, and along the way I see Elspeth, my mother, deposited at the suit factory, reaching for the sewing machine in front of her. Her brown hair curves around her ears and is smooth and glossy, trimmed to perfection. Her skin is pale but flushed at the cheeks and her lips are fuller than usual. Pregnancy softens her, but she has always been pretty in her quiet, delicate way. The big belly that contains me is covered by a dress she made herself, white with yellow swirls. Later she will undo the stitches and refashion it to fit her slender frame, but for now the belly beneath comes between her and her work, and I feel the hard ridge of the machine press against my forming body. The vibration as it pulls the cloth through is my clue to the outside world, like the hum of her voice, or the sound of James whispering each night, telling me how things will be. But nothing prepares me, or any of us, for what’s to come.

Elspeth quits her job at the suit factory weeks before I am born, when her stomach gets in the way of her arms reaching the machine. Everyone says she has to be further along than she thinks she is, or that there are two babies inside of her rather than just me. Is it because she is small, or because I’m big? Already we are defined by each other, and we haven’t even met yet. We haven’t looked at each other or touched on the outside. Thinking of it this way, the fact that I’m growing inside her body seems like an invasion of privacy. Hers and my own.

I watch as the other seamstresses throw a party for Elspeth on her last day. Someone brings a three-tiered cake dripping with icing, with a china baby on top surrounded by sugared violets. Sitting in the quiet factory that normally whirs with the sound of machines, Elspeth looks at the figurine — his fixed gaze and his menacing smile. She insists someone else cut the cake, but then she is given the piece with the baby stuck to it, and he stares up at her as the sweet taste fills her mouth. She has never liked sweet things.

She begins to see out her pregnancy in the ordinary ways, readying the very room I’m in now and napping in the afternoons. She paints the walls bright yellow, which is not a popular colour nor one she particularly likes, but something compels her to do it. Me, perhaps, pushing a wish through the umbilical cord. Every day James comes home from his postal route and says he wishes she would wait and let him do the painting, but she can’t possibly wait. She is nesting, or panicking. She climbs up and down the ladder and pushes herself to exhaustion with the need for everything to be just so. I am an honoured guest due to arrive at any moment. All of my things await me in their appropriate places, and in this room, where Elspeth often sits in silence, an aura of anticipation rises, yellow as the sun, around which everything revolves.

The women at the factory have used their various skills to fashion sleepers and booties for me, as well as little hats and underthings. One woman — Iris — embroidered the flower of her name onto a bib, which to Elspeth seems a strangely personal thing to do, given that Iris is nothing more than a co-worker. More clothes and blankets have come from my grandmother, who saved everything from James’s infancy. Elspeth folds the linens into dresser drawers scented with lavender sachets. But as the pregnancy progresses, it seems unlikely that I will fit into such tiny garments.

Day by day I turn in Elspeth’s womb, a dark, shadowy place with an orange glow. My ears prick when James sings to me, and I sit still, hugging my legs and listening, sensing his presence outside. The orange glow dissipates when he comes close and puts his ear to Elspeth’s belly, and then seeps in again when he moves away. I put my hand out to him, and he sees it moving under her skin, presses his own palm against it.

My time is coming closer. Elspeth’s stomach stretches further and rings of purple discolour her ankles. She is bedridden in the days leading up to my birth, and James brings her meals on a tray and eats next to her, propping her up with pillows. But her appetite is waning. There is no room in the overextended stomach that bulges beneath her nightgown. The heartburn, she says, is unbearable, and she has to sleep sitting up, which means that the weight presses on her bladder, and she feels a constant need to pee. Her toes are cold and James has to put her slippers on for her because she can’t reach that far herself. In the hard line of her jaw, in the frantic shifting of her bloodshot eyes, he sees an anxiety caused by something other than physical discomfort, and he waits for her to confess a wash of fears that would be lessened by the simple fact of her head on his chest, the drum of his heart beneath her ear, as always. That is his role, the soother, but she doesn’t ask to be soothed, and he is unsure how to behave when nothing has been requested of him. At times in his life he’s known this to be his weakest trait.

While convinced she is as terrified as he, James doesn’t offer his own fears for discussion, or explain his irrational panic when, between Monday and Tuesday in the middle of the night, he hears the doorbell ring. It rings once in his sleep to awaken him, and then again as he rises on his elbows in bed, blinking. He looks at Elspeth, whose face, inches from his own, is still as death. As he is sometimes moved to do, he puts his hand in front of her mouth to satisfy himself that she is breathing. In his slippers he steps through the dark house, stands in the hall, and places one eye close to the door’s window.

“James, what are you doing?”

Her voice startles him and sends a shock up the back of his neck and over his scalp. He turns toward her and sees her standing in a column of light that comes through the window. Her hands clasp her big stomach, and he watches my foot travel across the width of her, masked by clothes and skin.

“Did you hear the doorbell?” he asks.

“No. I heard you.”

He puts a finger to his lips and opens the door. A leaf scuttles across the walk. The sailboat chimes tinkle in the breeze, and then slow to nothing. Under the yellow porch light, the pavement glistens with dew.

“Come to bed,” she tells him wearily. “You were dreaming.”

And beside her his heart aches in the darkness. He keeps his eyes shut and lets his mouth fall open in case she’s watching him. He even fakes a snore rattling at the back of his throat, and rolls away from her to face the wall. But he remains awake, waiting.

Later James will tell me I was born with manners — you rang the doorbell first, and then we asked you in — and he’ll pass over the other details of the night and morning: the gush of water breaking, Elspeth squatting in the tub and him in there with her, stroking her hair and feeling altogether useless in underwear and bare feet. She clings so tightly to his legs he thinks his bones are crushing. As he watches her moan through the contractions, a deep animal sound that echoes throughout the neighbourhood, he feels almost afraid of her power. For it is she, holding him so tightly, who keeps both of them from slipping down the drain in a black spiral. This is an emergency — he should have known. Her eyes roll back in her head, and red veins creep across the whites. She has to tell him, “Call an ambulance,” and he lays her down in the tub and runs to the phone.

Even in the hospital she believes what is happening to her has never happened to anyone else before. As they wheel her away, she looks at James and sees the fear in his eyes and knows she can’t say what she’s thinking: we’re dying. The baby and I will both die together.

But her silent frenzy subsides as the anaesthetic pulses through her. It rushes along this vein and that to ensure tranquility, and she feels herself smiling and rising to another place. There is no such peace for me. I come shuddering through a hole too small for me, fighting to stay inside of Elspeth while every part of me is squeezed and shoved forward. Forceps clamp my head and pull me. Light burns my eyes, sounds scrape my eardrums, and the cold air pierces through me. The cord that joins us is cut, and though it was part of both of our bodies, neither of us feels it happen. I am washed and bundled by strangers who record the first details about me as Elspeth sleeps. In a way she isn’t present when I am born, even further off than James who roams the hospital halls with his shirt crookedly buttoned, his socks mismatched, his mind travelling to other bone-chilling events as a way of convincing himself he can get through this one too. Until a nurse taps his shoulder.

“Mr. Brennan,” she says. “Congratulations. You have a healthy baby girl.”

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Origin of Haloes
Excerpt

Here is a time-lapsed chronology, a little row of consequence, of fallen dominoes:

Kay Clancy, an aspiring teenaged gymnast of uncommon talent, was being coached by a near-Olympian when she met Joséph Patrice Emmanuel François Gabriel LeBlanc, or Joe, in 1960. Both came from families that had dwelled in Valley towns for generations. Joe, of White Pine, Ontario, was descended from a long line of rivermen who sent logs down the Ottawa. His father, Jacques, died doing just that, and Joe grew up without him, under the somewhat shoddy care of his mother, Delphine, which his two great-uncles said was a great tragedy. When the town of White Pine was flooded to make room for a dam, Delphine went south, and Joe, almost but not quite a man, stayed behind. White Pine filled up with water, and the streets Joe had known as a child were washed from the face of the earth, but Kay later said it was a lucky thing, because otherwise he might not have found her when he walked the nine miles to Deep River to live with his uncles, Alphonse and Toussaint.

In Kay’s account of the fall and subsequent capture, she claimed, “I don’t know myself how it happened. All I can tell you is, one minute I was in a back flip, spinning through the air, and the next, I was in his arms. I don’t know where he came from — well, I do. I mean, he came from White Pine, you know that.” Here she always laughed, amused with herself, and then became serious. “I mean, I don’t know how he came to be in the gym, happening by, right at the moment my spin went wrong. He always said he was just out walking, that he liked walking. He was always out walking, so that’s true, I suppose. But I have to tell you” — and her eyes would lift and focus on some distant image — “I think it was more than that. I think he was sent to me.”

There were two points in Kay’s story at which Margar longed to interrupt. When Kay said, “I don’t know where he came from,” Margar wanted to ask, “But do you know where he went?” And when Kay said, “I think he was sent to me,” Margar wanted to ask, “And away? Do you think he was sent away from you too?” But she said nothing, and continued to pretend that she was just fine without him, for as she’d heard her mother say, how could a child miss what she had never known? But she did miss him. And she looked for him everywhere.

After Joe disappeared for the second time, the myth that surrounded him remained open-ended. He may have tipped his canoe and drowned. What, then, of his body? Even the legendary painter Tom Thomson eventually resurfaced. Eight days after he vanished in this same neck of the woods, he floated up in the placid waters of Canoe Lake, a purple wound at his temple. Which meant the unknown handyman Joe LeBlanc was a man of greater mystery, for he was never seen again. What happened to him was a question around which lives would be sculpted. The possibilities were many, and made the probability misty and easy to ignore. He had been spotted portaging to the river, as usual, but one theory suggested the man with the canoe might not even have been Joe LeBlanc. Admittedly his face was never seen, only his loping, river-bound body, distinct but not singular, making room for the idea that Joe had not run off at all, had perhaps been kidnapped, tied up in the canoe, and carried away by a look-alike stranger.

Margar arose fatherless in the age of the yellow happy face. The flat circle head and eyes, the black half-circle grin, alarmed her brother Louis, but Margar was without fear from her very first moments. Set apart as she was (the last one, and possibly unwanted), she pushed her differences to the extreme, so that before she had all her baby teeth she was a rascal, a mischievous sleepwalker, a pick­pocketing imp who needed no one to get by. While Louis quaked in his tiny body, hungry Margar reached out for everything and more. As with a puppy, her big baby feet and hands predicted her stature. By the time she was three, she was as big as six-year-old Louis, who had been a huge toddler but had stopped growing. By the time she was ten, she had surpassed both the teenaged Estelle and their mother Kay. It was obvious she more than resembled her father, but it was rarely mentioned. Without him, Margar was a tall anomaly, a giant in a family of dolls. But she was cunning — no one ever knew she minded.

Nor would they know, years later, how she wept at the death of Pierre Trudeau. It was in September of the year 2000, during the Sydney Olympic Games, that the charismatic former prime minister got old and died. The whole country mourned for both the man and the era in which they had come to know him, but Margar took to her bed, weeping like a schoolgirl who was thirty-five years old. People lined up on Parliament Hill to touch his flag-draped coffin; they lined up again in the tiny towns throughout Ontario and Quebec to watch his funeral train roll by, but Margar, bedridden, was paralyzed with sadness. Trans­fixed by the images on television, she decided the procession was of a time more romantic than now, and was therefore one that suited him. Two of Trudeau’s beautiful sons stood at the window and offered their grief-laden smiles, and when she looked at them, she thought not only of Pierre but of the third son, Micha, who had been swept away in an avalanche just two years before — the little baby she had seen in the stroller long ago. And though Pierre had courted so many women before and since his wife, she thought of Margaret, too, there being something everlasting even about families that don’t last.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Occupied Garden

The Occupied Garden

Recovering the Story of a Family in the Wartorn Netherlands
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

The devastation of Rotterdam was visible from Gerrit’s vantage point, and from Cor’s too. Separately, each of them stared at the billowing clouds of smoke. Rige, their eldest, stood on the Tedingerstraat, watching the smoke lift and roll out into the sky, staining the blue day black. Rige’s pulse sped and slowed again with dread and shame. She thought of an old wives’ tale that said picking the koekoeksblom brought thunderstorms, and wondered if she, then, was the culprit. She’d never seen such black clouds.

Within three hours, Rotterdam was in ruins. Neighbouring Schiedam, too, suffered massive destruction. Cor’s cousin Cornelia, who helped in the bookstore, stood with her mother and sister in the doorway of their house, watching bombs explode in the schoolyard while air raid sirens screamed and people fled. Their rucksacks were strapped to their backs in case they, too, needed to run. The destruction multiplied when a margarine warehouse erupted, and a strong spring wind
spread the shooting flames. The intense heat spun into a whirlwind that lifted roofs off houses, shattered glass, and bent young trees to the ground. The blazing streets grew thick with people fleeing for their lives, but the small details seemed to happen in slow motion — a pot of flowers
tumbling from a windowsill, an old man falling. For three days, the core of Rotterdam was black with smoke, and its buildings continued to smoulder; debris rained down on Overschie and beyond. When houses were unlivable but the inhabitants had survived, people left messages for
loved ones in the rubble, and walked to a safer place: We are all right, they wrote, and scribbled an alternative address.

The Posts in Overschie had been spared by just a few kilometres, but for several days Cor had no news of them or of her brother Gerry and his family, who were living right in Rotterdam. When word finally did filter through that all had survived unharmed, Cor learned that the offices of
the shipping company that employed Gerry had been totally destroyed, but that Gerry had set sail just days before the invasion. She was glad that at least he had escaped, but worried for Gerrit as she watched the disciplined band of Wehrmacht soldiers march through the main street. The
staccato sound of their boots on the pavement echoed in her mind at night, magnifying her fear that Gerrit had not survived.

Two days after the capitulation, Cor listened as the radio announced that at various points in the Netherlands, German troops would be entering en masse, and that civilian traffic was to be halted
between 5:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to make way for them. Among the terms of occupation: German “credit certificates” were to be accepted as cash, beer was to be reserved for German officers and soldiers, the air raid blackout would be strictly maintained, and all carrier pigeons would have to be registered, and were forbidden to fly free. Cor remembered the radio reports describing the release of pigeons at the Berlin Olympics, and the announcer saying they’d carried a message of peace to the world. The irony was already astounding — but within two years, the Germans would go further, and order the birds slaughtered, requiring the ringed, severed legs as proof of the deed.

In Rotterdam, there was little time for licking wounds. The bodies, once counted, would number between eight hundred and nine hundred, though the international press estimated much greater figures, reaching as high as one hundred thousand. The New York Times reported that Nazi film footage of the destruction had been shown to correspondents in Berlin, and that the images gave the impression “not a single house . . . was left untouched by fire or some other instrument of destruction.” The voice-over accompanying the footage maintained, “The responsibility for this rests on a government that criminally did England’s bidding and afterward cowardly left their people to their fate.”

Within Rotterdam, the devastation was great, if overstated. Firefighters were called in from other towns and cities, including Leidschendam and Voorburg. People with automobiles were urged to go to the city with food and bandages, and anything that might help with the cleanup of mountains of rubble and charred wood. Meanwhile, the newly homeless flooded out of Rotterdam to surrounding areas like Overschie, and farther on to Leidschendam. Next door to the den Hartogs, the rooms Bep and Henny had vacated were taken over by a family whose house had been swallowed by fire. The couple arrived with a train of little boys behind them. The children looked strangely calm, but the parents’ faces were white with shock, even days after the bedlam faded. Cor, too, was stunned. Almost overnight, familiar surroundings had changed profoundly: Vader den Hartog had seen a German plane in the Tedingerbroekpolder beyond the tuin, its broken fuselage embedded in the soft earth. And she and Moeder had seen hundreds of dead and wounded trucked to the Saint Antonius Hospital in Voorburg — mostly Dutch soldiers but Germans too, and apparently also an English pilot and crew whose plane had crashed in the area. It was said that corpses were stacked in the mortuary, and surgery went on in the hallways. Cor ached to think of what might have happened to her own soldier.

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Water Wings
Excerpt

Hannah

The windshield is dirty, smudged with the tiny bodies of spent insects. Early on Hannah had been taught that insects were beautiful, even ordinary flies, though they began as swarming maggots. It was her father who had pointed out the metallic blue and green of them, their huge eyes and their legs that bent at the knee, things she may never have noticed on her own. How long since he’d died? Nine, Hannah was when it happened, so fourteen years without him. Funny to think. After that there was only the three of them: Hannah, Vivian and their long-haired mother, Darlene. And yet all this time the ghost of their father had hovered like a transparent umbrella, there but not there, just as he’d been there but not there when he was alive.

The anniversary of his death had passed silently last month, as though it were any other day. Blue Thursday this time. The day and the colour camouflaged, changing every year. Hannah woke as usual to a radio song, ate cereal, showered, went to work at the flower shop, came home, ate dinner, watched television and readied herself for bed. It was not until then that she saw him. Just a glimpse. He appeared briefly in her mirror, his face replacing hers. He had his mouth open in song, and he was wearing his mock-serious opera face. And then he was gone and her own face was there. She said aloud, “He died today.”

She had tried to remember the funeral, as she has often attempted to do, but all that had come to mind were the flowers, deathly gladioli, common and unlike him. Two stiff arrangements flanked the coffin, and a wide ribbon bore the hand-written words, R.I.P. Mick Oelpke. In her memory she could not see anything clearly but these flowers and her own finger in the wrinkled lower blooms, touching the velvet centres. If he had only waited to die, she would have made beautiful bouquets of reeds and wildflowers and weeping willow that spilled to the floor. It was easy to know what he would love.

It would be harder to choose flowers for Darlene, which soon she must do, because out of the clear wide blue, Hannah’s mother had announced her engagement to Reg Sinclair, a man who had never meant anything to any of them. A stranger, as much as anyone can be a stranger in a town as small as theirs. And this is where Hannah is headed, back home for the wedding.

Ottawa is less than three hours from the town where she grew up. She should visit more often, needing no reason to come, such as this wedding. Her gift will be the bridal bouquet and two large arrangements to frame that same altar. She must also make a boutonniere for Reg and a basket of petals for Brie to carry. Beautiful Brie, a flower girl. On the passenger seat the basket sits filled with florist’s supplies: pins, tape, wire, wire snips, filmy organza ribbon in two shades of green and a spritzer to spray Darlene’s bouquet before she walks down the aisle. Darlene had wanted common red roses and baby’s breath because she hadn’t got them the first time around, but Hannah had said no. It was unlike Darlene to back down, and Hannah had been surprised when she’d said, “Okay, Girly,” in her nonchalant way. “You’re the expert.” And she was. Hannah knew her flowers.

Still, she was afraid of failing. She had made many wedding bouquets, but Darlene’s would be different. She had looked through all the books at work, hoping for a magical idea. Stood staring into the cooler, making imaginary bouquets from the flowers there, and in the end she had come up with nothing. What suited Darlene? What suited the lapel of Reg Sinclair, whom she barely knew?

In her mind she conjures Reg Sinclair’s shoe store. The Footworks sign and the yellow circle of lights all around it. Inside and out, it was glitzier than the other stores in town. A band of mirror running low along the fake wood walls so that you could see your feet everywhere you walked. Reg Sinclair measuring Hannah’s foot with a foot-shaped ruler, sliding its metal knob to cup the place where a bunion has since grown. From him Darlene had bought Hannah and Vivian sandals in summer, school shoes in fall. Once, patent-leather shoes that smudged when Hannah touched them, holding the print of her finger. Back then they would never have guessed he would marry their mother. That they would one day have Lily, his half-Chinese daughter, as a stepsister. Suddenly related to a girl they hardly knew. Lily was between Hannah and Vivian in age. Rumour said a mysterious wife had given birth to her and returned to China, leaving Lily motherless, a horror Hannah couldn’t imagine. Even before Mick had gone, she’d had nightmares about losing Darlene.

What would Mick think of Darlene marrying Reg Sinclair? Hannah wonders if he knows, if he is somewhere out there, watching. He hadn’t believed in an afterlife, but smart as he was, he may have been wrong. No one would be more surprised than Mick to discover himself in heaven, looking down. He might now know everything and more.

She is nearing home and there is that smell in the air, of cut grass and river. In her rusty VW Bug, a convertible, she turns off the Trans-Canada and onto the tar-mended road into town. A sick, childhood feeling sweeps hotly through her and is gone. The water tower, with its missing letters, seems small now, but it’s true that a boy once jumped from there, plummeting not to his death but to a state of vegetation. Mick had explained what that meant. She used to think of the boy every time she ate vegetables. His brain curly like cauliflower, but wet and bluish-grey. She can’t remember his name.

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