By the time I had turned off the highway, I knew it was too late to turn back. Anxiety climbed up my tightening throat as I drove past familiar landmarks: the old cemetery, the feed mill, and the church billboard (Jesus is Coming – Are You Ready?).
I passed through the entirety of Hamney (population: 3000) – my old grade school, high school, and the grocery store where I used to work – before coming out the other side. The weight in my stomach felt even heavier as I turned into the first farm on the right.
The gravel crunched and the electric fence ticked, and I was home.
Beside Dad's pickup and Mom's car was a vehicle I did not recognize – a brown Jeep. Duffel bag in hand, I walked up to the front door and had just turned the handle when I saw an unfamiliar figure in the freshly plowed field behind the house. She was small – or perhaps that was just the giant denim jacket she wore.
"Hello?" I called.
The woman turned with a bright, open smile that made me want to smile back at her. "Oh, hi!" The jagged fringe of her short, cropped hair fluttered in the light breeze. I dropped my duffle bag at the door and made my way towards her.
"You must be Mr. and Mrs. Prins's daughter," she said, juggling her camera into her left hand so she could hold out her right. "I'm Nora."
"Fleur," I said, shaking her hand, soft and small in my own. Though I supposed my hands had lost their callouses in my time at university and had grown soft as well. "How do you know my parents?"
"Just met them this morning, actually," Nora said. "I'm only in town for a week – working on a portfolio." She gestured at her camera. "You guys have a lovely place here: the rolling hills, all the green!" The words tumbled out of her, as she turned to gesture at the landscape, squinting in the bright sunlight. "And you can see for miles and miles!"
I looked around, following her gaze and outstretched arm, seeing how the bright greens of the Willems's bush behind us could be appealing. Their youngest and I had met n Sunday School and had practically grown up in there. But I hadn't been back in ages. The silos from the de Vries's farm peaked out from behind the hills in a pretty way as well, but they just reminded me of their son – the new pastor at church.
Nora blushed a little at her outburst, looking back at me. She glanced down at my hands, which I realized had gravitated once again to clasp over my stomach. I quickly pulled them away and stuck them in my back pockets. "Well, I could probably tell my parents I'm here, so I'll just…"
"Yeah, I was just about to head out too." Nora hastily shoved her camera in the bag slung over her shoulder. "I actually convinced someone to let me take a few pictures of them." She paused. "A, uh, Bas Hansen?"
"Oh, he's sweet. A bit of a womanizer though, you should watch out." I grinned.
Nora laughed, a wonderful bright sound. "Yeah, well, he's…" she looked me up and down. "Not really my type."
I raised my eyebrows, a slight blush travelling up my cheeks. "Well, I should hope not, he's like seventy."
"I'll make sure to be careful," Nora said, flashing me a quick smile as she passed me. "Bye, Fleur."
I stood still for a moment, tempted to say that I hoped I saw her around, but instead just allowed myself a small smile before crossing to the barn.
Dad crowded the small office space just inside the main barn, hunching over the computer as his legs stretched far under the desk, checking his email one last time before heading in for a late lunch. I hesitated a moment in the open doorway, hands fluttering near my stomach again, but the floor had already creaked under my feet.
He turned at the sound and his face lit up when he saw me. "Fleurtje!" he exclaimed, lumbering around the filing cabinet to hug me.
"Hey, Dad," I said, muffled by his barn coat. The combination of my nickname and the scent of farm that permeated my father was exactly what I needed.
"Did I miss a text?" he asked. "I didn't know you were coming."
"No, I…" I thought about telling him. But I was afraid to see the love in his eyes be replaced by what I could only assume would be disappointment. "It was a bit of a last-minute thing."
It had just been a fun night – a fun night with a dumb mistake – that had started all of this. Early morning light peeked through the blinds in thin lines on the floor by the time I had gotten home. I crept up the stairs, avoiding the creaky steps, and slipped into the bathroom – my reflection told a story of the night before that I preferred no one else see. Yesterday's makeup was smudged and smeared, my hair an attempted taming of a mess, and my top was misbuttoned.
As I began to wash my face, a door across the hallway opened and my roommate Aimata, dark hair in a messy bun, stepped out, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "Morning."
I turned and Aimata got a better look at me. "You look…" Her eyebrows rose. "Did you just get in?"
I hesitated. "Maybe."
"Oh my God." She was grinning. "You didn't?"
"I may have." I let a small grin pull at my mouth.
"Do I know him… or her?"
"No," I said. "Just some guy."
Aimata smiled. "Well, I'm happy that you're getting out there."
A little less than a month later, I was in the throes of exams and as I rode the bus home from campus, something nagged at the back of my mind. I couldn't quite put a finger on it, but I was sure there was something I had forgotten.
It bothered me all the way home, walking from the bus stop to the house. Hands still cold from the cool March air, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate in the kitchen. In the moment of quiet that I allowed herself, looking out the window at the budding trees, I realized what had been nagging at me: I was late. My period should have started a week ago.
A few hours later and the positive pregnancy test laid on the bathroom counter and my phone was in my hand, Mom's number pulled up. I never pushed call.
So now I was back home – to the reliably safe but suffocating country roads of Hamney – to do the thing in person that I had not been able to over the phone. And to decide. The options were clear – motherhood or the word made so taboo in my youth that I still didn't like to say it – but that didn't make my decision any easier.
When I started down the stairs the next morning, I heard a familiar voice from the living room. I stopped in my tracks and leant against the wall, closing my eyes, and letting out a long slow breath.
Gerdina Veneman, whose heavily accented words hovered up the stairs, was an old family friend – and my godmother – who I had forgotten always visited Mom for tea on Friday morning. Unfortunately for me, everyone always said that Mrs. Veneman could spot a lie across a cornfield in late August. I was not sure even my loosest sweater and most careful answers could compete with that.
But I took a breath and scrubbed my face with my hands and went down the rest of the stairs.
Mrs. Veneman sat in the living room with Mom, a trembling hand holding a teacup. Her skin was wrinkled and translucent like it might slip off her bones at any moment, but that took nothing away from her intense gaze as she turned to see me enter, her back and neck stiff as a rod and chin elevated. Although I had never seen pictures of her when she was young, I could tell she had been stunning – in an intimidating sort of way.
"Ach, Fleur, it's so nice to see you back home again," she said.
"Good morning, Mrs. Veneman," I said. I wanted to just pass by, go to the kitchen for breakfast, but that would be impolite. So, I sank into a chair across from her, grabbing a pillow to hug over my torso just to be safe.
As my godmother, she always took an interest in how I was doing, and I didn't begrudge her that. She had always been there for me and she was a genuinely kind and interesting person to be around – but I knew what she would want me to do, and I wasn't even sure if I disagreed with her yet.
"So, what brought you back home?"
"Oh, you know, I, uh, missed everyone."
"Of course." She set her teacup down. "It is nice to see some young people come back. Everyone seems to be leaving, the farm for the city, even leaving the church."
My hand flew up to my collar to confirm that I had worn my cross necklace – fortunately I had had the foresight to bring it with me from where it had lain in the bottom of my jewelry box for weeks. It had been a gift from her when I had done my profession of faith when I was eighteen. It felt oddly comforting to be wearing it again. Or, not comforting – just familiar.
Mom, glancing over at me, quickly stepped in. "Then you must be looking forward to going back to Holland in the fall. How long has it –?"
"You know that Marlene's son – the middle one, Fred – has stopped coming to church? And he's just had a baby with his new wife, who is also not in the church, so we know their daughter won't be baptized. Marlene wants him to do it for her and Mark's sake – not to mention his father, Dirk – but I don't think it'll happen. It really is sad."
By the time she left, I wasn't sure if Mrs. Veneman knew everything I was hiding, or if that was just the air of knowledgeability she emanated.
I decided I should tell them at dinner. That seemed like a good time. We sat around the table, Dad's hands freshly washed after a day in the barn and Mom still wearing her apron. As they talked about what had happened while I was gone, I worked up my nerve. I just had to get the first word out. Once I started, it would be fine. I would say everything. I stared at my plate, the cross pendant dangling, glinting in the light.
Just the first word. I licked my lips.
"I need to tell you guys something." The words tumbled out of my mouth, tangled, tripping over themselves. The clinking of utensils stopped, and I knew that if I looked up from my plate, I would probably see them looking at me. I took a breath. Now I had started and had to tell them.
Eyes trained on the gravy-doused mashed potatoes, I continued. "I'm pregnant." I closed my eyes a moment, then finally raised my head, feeling the necklace settle against my collarbone. "That's– That's why I'm back."
Mom and Dad exchanged a look, one I was not able to interpret. "How long have you known?" Mom asked gently.
"Month and a half."
She nodded. I looked at Dad, who was quiet for a moment. "I'm glad you told us," he said finally.
I had prepared for anger, for disapproval. I had hoped for anger. If they had reacted angrily, it would have justified my distance, my doubts about the values they had raised me with. Anger would have prompted me to defend myself and my choices. But understanding and quiet disappointment, I didn't know what to do with that.
If they had been angry, I would have told them that I'd stopped going to church – just pull off the band-aid all at once.
Mom scooted her chair closer to me, taking my hands. "You can stay here as long as you need to, if you – well, whatever you decide."
I wanted to feel comforted by the support, but a guilty part of me had hoped that this could be the final answer to my question – the question that, like my necklace, hung around my neck with familiarity.
So, I nodded and gently pulled my hands away. "I'll just – I'll let you guys…" I gestured vaguely between them, pushing my chair back and standing up. They exchanged another look – a worried one – as I turned to go.
"Where are you going?" Dad asked.
"For a drive," I tossed over my shoulder. But I hesitated at the door, waiting for them to stop me, my hand on the doorknob. They didn't.
I didn't actually want to drive around, but I didn't want to be home either, so I stopped at the bar and grill in town. The chatter inside was muted, and the warm low light made it feel cozy. I glanced around, recognizing nearly every person – from my high school science teacher to people that used to babysit me and kids that I used to babysit. As I looked around for an empty seat, my eyes settled on a more-recently familiar figure at the bar. I tucked a stray hair back into my braid and crossed the room and sat beside Nora.
"Hi," I said quietly.
Nora turned and smiled brightly. "Oh, hey! I was hoping I'd see you around."
"Yeah, me too." Her smile fit the cozy atmosphere of the bar and made me want to sit and bask in its comforting warmth for a while. Instead, I asked, "So, how'd things go with Mr. Hansen?"
She laughed. "Well, he definitely hit on me – so thanks for the warning on that. But it was kind of endearing, to be honest."
"Yeah, he's a sweetheart," I said. "So, portraits, are what you do?"
"I'm going to college for photography," she said. "But, yeah, portraits were what got me into that in the first place."
She told me about her family – all bookworms, except for her – and how her mom went through several attempts to get her to enjoy reading – audiobooks, graphic novels, and large print – until Nora had found the photography book.
It was a thick hard-cover book that she had found while avoiding her mother's new suggestion: short story collections. The cover was a collage of hundreds of tiny black and white pictures – the title, Visage, was written in a spiky cursive over them. Inside, every other page had a black and white photo of a person. They were of all ages and ethnicities, some smiled, some did not. Written on the next page was something about the person, from quotes to short stories to single words.
Nora was enthralling as she spoke. Her eyes glinted in the warm light and her smile never left her face as she described the book in excruciatingly exquisite detail.
"My favourite one was a picture of an old man, who looked out of the book at you like he was about to tell the punchline of a clever joke." Nora turned to me. "And do you know what it said on the corresponding page?"
"What?" I asked, smile wide. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.
She was trying not to laugh. "Fork."
"Fork." Nora snorted and nodded. "And I feel like it must part of some marvellous joke that I'll never hear. I just know that guy and I would have gotten along great." She chuckled lightly. "God, I love people." Her eyes locked with mine. "Who's the coolest person you know?"
"My godmother, I guess. She was in the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War."
"Oh my God, that's actually really cool!" she exclaimed. "Wow, she must have some stories."
I smiled and nodded. "Yeah." The weight in my stomach was suddenly back again, and I looked down at the floor.
"I don't want to impose, or whatever, but do you think your godmother would be cool with me taking pictures of her for my portfolio?"
By the time I arrived at Mrs. Veneman's the next day, Nora's jeep was already there. I flipped down the mirror and took a breath. I couldn't tell her yet, not until I knew what I was going to do. I knew how convincing she could be and I wanted this to be my decision. So much of my life was predetermined by the expectations that hung around this town like a heavy mist.
The house was quiet when I entered. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be, as always. Pictures of her and her late husband, and of their children and grandchildren stood on the mantel and a partially crocheted mitten pocked out of the basket that sat beside her chair.
I heard the click of a camera and muffled voices and followed them to the back porch. Mrs. Veneman stood at the railing and gazed into the distance, over the fields that her husband had once worked, and were now her son's. Nora stood at her side, leaning over the railing to catch her profile.
They both looked over when I stepped outside. Nora smiled widely. "Your godmother's a natural model."
"I never expected anything else," I replied, relaxing slightly in her presence.
"Ach, girls, you're too kind," Mrs. Veneman said, exaggeratedly humble.
Nora and I laughed, and I watched as Nora got back to work, directing Mrs. Veneman in how to stand sometimes, but mostly just letting her be. I could see that she was good at this, that she could see who Mrs. Veneman was and how to capture it.
"Fleur?" she asked, suddenly, camera still against her face. "Could you just fix the fly-aways in her hair real quick?"
"Of course." I carefully reached over to do what she asked, but the move inadvertently got my sweater caught on the railing and pulled it up, revealing the slight bulge of my stomach. I quickly tugged it down, but the damage was done.
I looked to Nora first, if only so I was not looking at Mrs. Veneman. She had lowered her camera and her concern seemed to be more a reaction to the panic in my eyes than the pregnancy itself.
"Fleurtje." Mrs. Veneman's voice was steady. "Do you have something to tell me?"
My eyes still on Nora, I said quietly, "I'm pregnant."
I finally looked over at her, pushing my glasses up my nose. Her mouth was pinched tightly, and she looked at me expectantly. I felt myself shrink under her gaze, heart racing and bobbing up my throat. A stained-glass ornament in the shape of a cross glinted in the window.
"I'm sorry." The words slipped out automatically, as I tried to assuage the guilt of disappointing her. I looked down at the concrete of the porch, not wanting the see the way she was looking at me.
Nora had stepped back, removing herself slightly, but looked between us with concern. She pulled her lips into her mouth like she was trying to stop herself from saying anything. She raised her eyebrows at me – was I okay? Did she need to step in?
But Mrs. Veneman's gaze was heavy, too heavy, and I turned and hurried down the steps to the yard. "I've gotta go," I said half-heartedly, not looking back. I ran into the bush beside the house until I couldn't see anything but trees and sky. I had known how she would react. I had known she would be disappointed. But know it and seeing it as she looked at me were two very different things.
I heard footsteps and turned to see Nora walking towards me. She stopped a few steps away. "Are you okay?"
I choked out a laugh that sounded more like a sob. "No."
She took the last few steps. "I'm so sorry. If I'd known, I never would've asked you to –"
"It's okay, she would've found out sooner or later," I said, trying to relax and calm my racing heart. "I was actually planning on telling her… sometime."
It was quiet for a moment. The new leave rustled in the breeze and the distinctive call of the killdeer rang out.
"So, have you decided if you're gonna…?" she asked.
"I don't know yet," I said quickly.
She raised an eyebrow. "Okay." She looked at me. "Answer this question with the first thought that pops into your head: Do you want to have a kid now?"
"No." The word was oud before I could stop it. I stared at Nora, then at the ground.
"There you go," Nora said.
"it's not that simple, I can't just…" I looked at her meaningfully, not daring say the word as though it would spawn a spontaneous Pro-Life demonstration right there. "Mrs. Veneman, everyone –"
"Is not you," Nora interrupted. "It's your decision because it's your life."
I let her words settle, then nodded. "Wow, I really met you at the right time, didn't I? And sorry for ruining the pictures you were gonna take today."
She smiled. "Don't worry about it."
I took a long slow breath. "I guess I'd better go and face the music."
"I can come with you if you need the support."
"No, I think I should do this myself." I put a hand on her arm. "Thanks so much for everything."
"No problem." Her eyes were soft. "And if you ever wanna talk, or get a drink – after, you know–" She gestured at my stomach. "Give me a call." She scribbled her number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. "Good luck."
I watched her retreating figure with a soft smile, holding the scrap of paper tight. While the heaviness of what I was about to do had not disappeared completely, it felt just a bit lighter.
Mrs. Veneman had retreated inside and sat on her chair, crocheting a mitten. She always said that doing something with your hands could help you think better, which was why I now had a habit of bringing my knitting projects to lectures. There were so many little habits, good and bad that I had gotten from her. Maybe this was the first step to getting rid of the bad ones.
I sat down on the couch across from her and waited for her to finish her row. She carefully put it in the basket and looked at me. The air in the room began to feel heavy again, but I focused on what I had to say, hand gripping the paper in my sweater pocket.
"So," she said. "You are pregnant."
She nodded and looked at me expectantly. I tugged at my necklace, feeling the chain dig into my skin. My throat tightened.
"So, what are your plans after graduation?" she asked.
I looked at the floor. "I am no planning on keeping the baby, Mrs. Veneman."
"You are not planning on keeping the baby," she repeated slowly. "You mean, you are giving the child up for adoption."
I ran a shaking hand through my hair. "No." I looked at her again, watching the realization dawn on her. "I am not planning on going through with the pregnancy."
She was quiet for a full ten seconds. "You know how I feel about that, Fleur," she said quietly.
"I do, but it's my decision," I said firmly.
"You cannot do this."
I was so taken aback that it took me a moment to respond. Mrs. Veneman could be direct – it was what she was known for – but she usually just gave advice in such a way that she was usually listened to. "Yes, I can," I said, my voice rising.
"No!" I exclaimed, and she sat back in surprise. "I didn't come here for advice or for you to tell me what to do. I came here to tell you what I have decided to do."
"You know I cannot support this decision," she said, quiet again.
Looked away quickly and nodded, lower lip beginning to tremble.
"I love you like a daughter, Fleur," she continued, and I blinked rapidly to keep the tears at bay. "But this… I cannot support you in this."
"I understand," I managed to choke out before getting up.
"Fleur?" Mrs. Veneman said, but I was already out the door.
I got about halfway home before I had to pull over because my tears were making it hard to drive. I let myself cry then, loud wrenching sobs, hunched over the steering wheel. I knew that she had been trying to guilt me into changing my mind, but that didn't mean that the loss was any less.
When I was all cried out, only a stray teary hiccup every now and then, I sat back and let out a long breath. I carefully took off my necklace and looked at it, the cross pendant in the palm of my hand. Everyone had been proud when I did profession of faith – but in an obligatory sort of way, like how people were proud when you graduated high school. It was what you were expected to do.
I slipped it into my sweater pocket, my hand brushing against the scrap of paper. I smiled, feeling the fluttery lightness again. The phone number – Nora's phone number – was a promise of a future that was my decision.