I watched as smoke from the burning farmhouse furled into the sky. Arguing voices pulled me away from the ghost shapes in the smoke.
Tante Maria was struggling to get onto the wagon while clutching the large family Bible in one arm.
“I’m not leaving it!” she shouted at the khaki-clad soldier, not caring whether or not he understood what she was saying. “Our family’s history is in that Bible!”
“Give it to me,” I said, forcing myself into the present with its horror of the burning house, the slaughtered animals, the false notes of the piano being hacked to pieces to become part of a cooking fire.
Maria paused and then handed me the Bible with shaking hands. She struggled to get onto the wagon in her long dress. One of the soldiers laughed at another’s crude joke and I clutched the Bible tighter, wishing it would bring me some comfort. Precariously seated, Maria reached down and took the Bible from me, placing it reverentially on her lap. She started reciting Psalm 91, hands clutched together.
“Ik zal tot den Heere seggen: Mijn Toevlucht en mij Burg! Mijn God, op Welen ik vertrouw!” Tears flowed over her cheeks as she watched her house burn to the ground.
I swallowed hard. I was supposed to have been safe here. Johannes promised me. Smoke blew in our direction and, for a moment, covered the stench of the animal carcasses.
I didn’t want to see the ghosts again, but here they were; fallen comrades who even in death remained with their brothers in arms.
Where in heaven’s name is Johannes? He promised the day he left he wouldn’t go far. Promised he would not let them burn this farm like the others. In my mind I kept on reciting the Psalm, trying to feel the angels and their wings around me, keeping me safe.
Johannes’ voice sounded in my ears as I turned to climb onto the wagon.
“Want Hij zal Zijn engelen vam u bevelen, dat sij u bewaren in al uw wegen.”
I looked around and spotted him standing some way off. Still dressed in simple clothes, he no longer held a Mauser in his hands. His chest was covered in dark blood and sand crusted his face. I wanted to wipe it away, to tell him it’s alright. I wanted to beat his chest and ask him how he could have left me. How he could let me go to the camps. How he dared recite the Bible to me.
I jumped when a young soldier touched my arm and I stepped back.
“Jy sien ook?” he asked, the words barely recognisable. “You see them as well?” he repeated in English, his eyes pleading.
“See what?” I shrugged and climbed onto the wagon, sitting down next to Maria.
The young soldier folded his arms around him, eyes darting from ghost to ghost.
I stared down at my soot-covered hands.