The Wrong of My Birth
NOVEMBER 12, 1983, THE NETHERLANDS—THREE CHILDREN DEAD FROM DEATH CAP POISONING. SO FAR NO SUSPECTS, POLICE SAYS.
Dear Mr. de Graauw,
Do you ever scratch until you bleed? Do others look at you in disgust because they can't stomach your raw red lesions or the scattering of flaky dust you leave in your wake? Do you know what it feels like for misfortune to stalk you like a wolf?
Because you seem deaf to my brief refusal, I'll make you read my more elaborate "no." Explanations, they say, may enhance empathy.
Let's start at the beginning: I should not have been born. My mother had already delivered seven children when she suffered a miscarriage, followed by a stillbirth, then me. I was sickly and afflicted with weeping eczema from day one. Growing up, I was miserable and saw my desperate mother mostly in tears. My father blamed me for her depression and most of my siblings saw my peeling skin as a sign of my being radioactive.
At fourteen, I moved in with my kindest sister, who was married and raising two children. The years I lived with her small family were an exception in my life: almost happy. After a warm supper, I could forget about not fitting in at school. Still, I woke up each morning as though I'd been rolling through broken glass.
I married when I was eighteen, because—you guessed it—the girl was pregnant. Strange things can happen in the dark. We didn't love each other, yet I tried to make the best of it, even after the birth of my second son, who isn't actually mine. My wife and I both knew it; everyone knew it; it was as obvious as the color of his eyes. I knew exactly who'd fathered him. Regardless, I raised the boy as though he were mine, probably even favored him to make up in advance for any shortcomings of mine if they were to occur. After my sons left home, I filed for divorce.
In my next life, I fell in love with a younger woman floating in the Dead Sea. We were in Israel in the hope that rubbing salt on our wounds would reduce our inflammation. She worked as the vice-president for a bank in Antwerp, and as such, received jewelry, silk scarves, and gold watches from her clients, things she immediately re-gifted. Money meant little to her, so she retired as soon as possible while she was still young. At the time I thought she did so to spend more time with me. In reality, it was to spend more time with the bottle. The heavier she drank to forget her itch, the worse her skin split and oozed. She often stumbled and, refusing my help, she crawled into bed like a snail. One night, while I was putting on my creams in the next room, she silently drowned in the bathtub. I'm not sure it was an accident.
When I tell others that I should not have been born, they tell me I shouldn't say such things. But what's wrong with speaking the truth? None of my sons have become a doctor, something I'd wished for so secretly, that even I was surprised when I first said it out loud at my ex-wife's funeral. There's still hope for my grandkids, you may say, but they live in a foreign world of screens and no books. I only have one wish left: to die at home, isolated, without being a bother to anyone.
So, please understand that I won't sell my house, no matter how generous your offer. You and your development plans will simply have to wait until time will correct the wrong of my birth.
P.S. Thank you for the cake. I don't like sweet things—it makes my eczema flare up—but I'll find someone who does, so your ineffective gift won't go to waste.
grew up in the Netherlands and currently roams the world. She's the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, "A Whale in Paris" (Atheneum/Simon&Schuster, 2018). Her short prose appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Prairie Schooner