by Claire Polders
Her husband folds his hand over hers, the one wielding the knife, and she stops slicing the breakfast bread. He says they have enough. Their eyes meet. The word “enough” sounds foreign to her, as though it has lost all meaning. They eat one lightly buttered sandwich each and drink substitute coffee.
All day long, the ghost of his hollow word haunts her around the store. Her husband is a grocer, which is why the Germans leave him alone, and she works unpaid as his clerk. She counts the crates and customers, weighs their provisions, compares their ration tickets to their needs. Since the invasion two years ago, everything seems contaminated with the opposite of her husband’s word.
At night in the kitchen, she often runs short, not because he’s a bad man, but because he is good. Too good. His helpers in the store all sneak and cheat, he’s caught them in the act, yet he won’t allocate an extra portion to his own family. He won’t take advantage. Not even when she tells him about her growing hunger. Take from my share, he offers, we are not starving. But it’s an offer she cannot accept; she, too, has her pride. Enough is an abyss in which hope and reality disappear.
She starts off with a wedge of cheese on a cold November day. It’s not much more than a rind, and she chews it slowly. She helps herself to a handful of raisins later in the month. While cutting a tiny weekly portion of pork for a man with a paunch, she embezzles a tranche for her Saturday soup. She takes an apple or two, a scoop of peas, a grey bun. She licks a bonus bit of lard from the store’s last supply off her thumb. She steals, she pilfers—she devours. The only thing she considers enough these days is the duration of this horrible war.
Her husband detects discrepancies at times. She watches his honest hands tallying the tickets, measuring the flour sack on the scales. His hands work without ulterior motives, like they do on her body in the dark. She cares about his integrity—her guilt is solid—yet she does not care enough. She cares more for what’s growing inside of her, this small, greedy, unnamed creature she feels forever compelled to protect from hunger.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author who has stolen many stories from her willful and lovely grandmother. Her debut in English, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon&Schuster, 2018), is a novel for younger readers about a heroic girl who befriends a lost whale during World War II and helps liberate France. More at http://www.clairepolders.com.
Image courtesy of the Albert Heijn cultural heritage website.