For our yearly event Short / Kort / Court, Dutch author Sanneke van Hassel read Plastic Man from her short story collection Nederzettingen (“Settlements”), published by De Bezige Bij (Amsterdam, 2019). Here you can read the English translation by Danny Guinan.
At the roundabout, I turn my back on the city and walk into the woods. Past the fountain with the salamander and the fluted, red stone basin, where I often wash myself or my clothes, and then on down Pheasant Lane, deeper into the trees.
I avoid the light as much as possible. I like to stick to the shadows, to move among the old beeches, standing tall on their statuesque trunks, blocking out the light with their crowns.
Beech tree trunks are smooth, unlike willow trees with their brittle bark and hollows. Willows offer lots of hiding places. Beeches are slippery customers.
The evening is muggy and hot. The smell of mud hangs in my nose. It is a scent that I love – leaves, insects, humus. A little cloud of flies hovers above the path. I swish them away and pace out seventeen steps from the bench. When I reach the trail marker I leave the path and push on through beds of leaves, over the ditch, past the clump of elderberry bushes now in the last throes of bloom. Soon they will be full of fruit with which I will stuff my mouth; bitterly sour, but doable when eaten with a sachet of sugar. Empty café terraces are great for stocking up on sugar. I always manage to snatch a handful of sachets from the saucers before the staff spot me.
My things are stashed away under the thick trunk of a fallen ash. Ash trees are not very sturdy. I brush away the dead leaves. Woodlice run for cover. The sweet smell of decay. I pull at a piece of plastic and extract a flat package from the gap under the trunk. My fold-up house.
I hear a cry from the path. Has someone seen me? I look around quickly. A father is hoisting his little missy up onto his shoulders. A boy walks beside them, dragging a scooter behind him, longing for a strip of tarmac he can zip around on. I prefer the soft earth and the bed it offers me.
Their voices bounce around among the trunks of the old beeches. The father lets the girl tilt to one side, pretends to let her fall, and then straightens up again. She sits on his shoulders like a duchess, roaring with laughter. I keep myself hidden behind the elderberry bushes. Before long they’ll be heading back home to sleep with their nightlights. Children often get a fright when they see me.
In the summer I go to bed late. I prefer to wait until dark before going deeper into the woods. I stay as far away as possible from nocturnal activity here. From the drunk students who go skinny-dipping in the lake. From the men looking for other men. From the shady business.
When the weather is bad, I walk along the lakeside. When it is good, like today, I stick to the quiet paths and laneways. I stuff the package under my arm. The plastic has begun to turn green, slowly but surely I am becoming wood, am of the wood. Tramps smell of moss. There’s nothing wrong with that, fluffy moss softens everything.
It won’t be dark for another hour or two. I fold open the sheet of plastic and wrap it around my shoulders. I follow a horse trail deeper into the woods. I am afraid of barbecuers, night drinkers, couples making out on the benches. They could report me. And dogs, big dogs with wet noses and sharp teeth who are very good at finding me.
Once a man asked me what I was doing here. Once a man asked me whether I had a house. Once a man told me to clear off. Once a man said I didn’t belong here. Once a man offered to help me. Once a man threw a stone at me. Once a man came along with a dog that bit me. Once a man took a piss at a tree next to where I was sleeping. The pungent stench found its way into my nostrils.
It was a woman who called the police. I spent that night indoors.
Last winter there was a body in the stream behind the deer park. I saw it floating there. Facedown. It was a man in a beige jacket. The jacket was a balloon. His hands were grey and swollen. His hair fanned out from his head. I used a stick to push him towards the path. The park ranger knows who I am. I remove broken birdhouses from the tree trunks. When he’s not around I leave dead animals at his shed. Fallen trees I mark with an orange ribbon.
When it freezes I sleep at the Salvation Army. Only when there’s no other option. Sometimes they give me a hot meal. Always cauliflower, like it’s the only vegetable on earth. When they try to talk to me I keep my silence.
Twilight is falling, the birds are still singing, high up in the trees. I know that birds are dinosaurs. They survived the Great Catastrophe at the end of the Cretaceous. To survive, the birds had to become smaller. I imagine myself climbing up through the branches, unfolding my plastic wings, higher. I am not a bird. My head is much too big.
Sometimes I want to leave the city and go and live in a bigger wood, like the Schwarzwald in Germany, or among the holm oaks in Spain. But I don’t think I could live so far away from other people. I dream of cushions of moss, but I eat out of dustbins.
On hot days the woods smell of grilled meat and charcoal fires. I check all of the bins, one by one. I know which ones have the most to offer. On hot days they overflow, horns of plenty.
Later, when all the dogs are in their baskets, when all the nocturnal tourists have gathered at their secret places, all the men looking for men. Later, when everyone is gone, I sit out on the jetty on the lake and watch the city. It gives off so much light that there are never any stars here. Someday I will go to a place where there are stars.