Saskia tried to look defiant while she was grating the piece of shrapnel against a stone, careful to collect the fine metal dust on the cloth below. She wasn’t sure what defiance looked like exactly, but dad had said that what they were doing was an act of one. Her hands were frozen.
Dad was by the fire, boiling up rabbit skins for glue. He looked perfectly at peace, stirring and stirring as if in trance. It made Saskia sleepy to watch him and she let out a yelp when she grated her own skin against the rough surface of the stone.
“I guess that’s a good sign,” said Dad, smiling at her.
“How?” she snapped back, sucking her knuckles. Her stomach was growling. Even the disgusting slime he was cooking started to smell good.
“Means you’re still alive, snoepje.” He continued to stir the gunk. He always called her snoepje, sweetie. When she was little, he had chased her around the house, pretending to gobble her up, and it was strange to think she had been squealing with delight.
Saskia looked around. The war had been over for months now, and they were still in the displaced persons camp. Which was funny, because Saskia and dad were not the ones in the family who were lost. They knew exactly where they were. They didn’t know where Saskia’s baby sister was, or their mum. Not long now, dad had said, not long and they were all going to go home.
The woman in the tent next to theirs was having a baby. A birth on Christmas Eve, dad had said to her worried husband, who had been pacing outside the tent. It’s like a Christmas miracle. The man had just stared at him with that face that people made when dad told them that everything was going to be okay. Dad had tried to keep him busy by enlisting him in cutting out star shapes from bits of cardboard. It worked for an hour or so, but then the woman’s groans became so scary, that the man jumped up and forced his way
into the tent to see what was going on. The old rules no longer applied. To be afraid of a bit of blood and suffering. The idea seemed silly these days.
Saskia was expected to go to school when they were back home. She tried on the thought in her head, but it was hard to picture it. Five years old when the men took her away, there had been no schools where they took her, even though they called it a children’s re-education camp. Almost nine now, she had heard stories of teachers using rods for discipline. She wasn’t scared.
The woman’s groans turned into high pitched screams.
Dad started to whistle. His face lit up and he stopped stirring.
“That’s it, just right. Are you ready, snoepje?”
They both squatted on the frozen ground, and Dad arranged the pot of glue, the metal scrapings and the cardboard shapes in a little assembly line. He dipped his calloused fingers into the hot gloop and smeared glue all over the stars before handing them to Saskia, who sprinkled some of the metal powder over them; careful to hold it over the cloth in case of spillages. Her dad held one of the finished stars up high — and a beam from the floodlights set it alight. It sparkled and twinkled, and Saskia thought hold it higher, dad, hold it so high that mum can see it and find us. She was mesmerised. Memories came flooding in from a time far away when the world was not grey and ashes, but gingerbread men and pink and white aniseed sugar sprinkles, and sweets stuffed into boots by Sinterklaas.
That’s when she noticed that the screaming had stopped. The man emerged from his tent, his face ashen, his shirt covered in blood. He slumped down next to them, shaking his head before burying his face in his hands.
Saskia stood up. She grabbed a handful of glitter and walked over to the man.
“There,” she said, sprinkling it over his head, “all better.”
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