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Dissenting From the World

When Ria Westra walked towards the river that July afternoon in the Dutch village of Elst, she knew for certain that she had holidays there in the Province of Gelderland, but not much more than that. It was the area between Arnhem and Nijmegen where all the Westra’s she knew were born and grown up, and where they had been involved in growing all kinds of fruit in the fertile clay soil.

Beyond the river was the old post-mill she knew so well; it could be turned in any direction from which the wind was coming. The purpose was that it got rid of superfluous water from the ditches between the pasturelands, and directed it towards the river.

Ria found it difficult to imagine that here, many centuries ago, had been a Roman army camp.

She gave the ducks some old bread crusts and decided to saunter on the path along the river by the rustling reed and sword grass.

When she was seven years old a hunter had saved her life, when he saw her come too close to the waterside, slip and fall into the river. She had not yet learned to swim. He grabbed her and carried her back to the farmhouse, where Mother cleaned her under the pump and gave her dry clothes. The hunter had only said, “The Lord arranged, that I was at the right spot at the right moment.” She had never seen him again. But she had avoided going to the same place until she was fifteen years old. Then she liked to sit there, making drawings of the surroundings and writing some poems.

Her most beautiful memories were the Christmas holidays, when they were all still together at home. Father, Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother, her brother Henk and her sister Ritske.

They went with horse and carriage to church. They sat with friends and neighbors around the big pot-bellied stove, or sometimes in the square kitchen next to the cooking range, on which the Dutch fritters and waffles were baked. Later they sang with father behind the old blow organ, or with grandfather and his mouth organ.

None of them had gone with the stream of the modernists; they had turned their backs against the spirit of the age.

Inside before the window of the living room a white star was suspended from the ceiling; in it was a small electric light. Father had gotten it from a friend who had been ill and had made it while lying in bed a couple of months.

Absorbed in her thoughts, Ria walked further.

She had left Amsterdam in the morning with the first train, after she had given notice of departure and cleaned her room in the boarding house. She had studied a year at the university, with the purpose to become a general practitioner in the future. She tried to digest all the impressions she got during the past months. The way she saw the other students lived had bewildered, shocked and disgusted her. Soon she began withdrawing to her room after the lectures.

She saw that she did not fit in that world.

Among all the young people, she had been unable to find someone with whom she could have a conversation, in the library of the university or the conference room, during lunchtime or in the evenings. Even those boys and girls, who did not drink alcohol, did not use drugs, and who told her that they had had a Christian education, had disappointed her. They told her, that nowadays with a modern economy, it was possible to earn lots of money by introducing new medicines. They even speculated at the stock exchange with money that they borrowed from their parents. They had ideals which had nothing to do with the medical profession. In the restaurants they never took the trouble to pray before they started eating. They told each other dirty jokes, drank a lot of beer and were very noisy. They threw puzzled glances at her. A boy once offered her a glass of wine, but she had politely refused.

In the pension it was clean, but unadorned and chilly, and other girls seemed not even to notice that she existed. They went with friends to their rooms and listened to strange, wild music, while they yelled and stamped their feet.

After much searching, she had found a church of the Liberated Reformed Church, where she could go on the Lord’s Day. She heard about other churches, where there existed much unrest; there were quarrels going on concerning many things. She tried to hear more about it, but it seemed everybody wanted to avoid a conversation about it. She saw broken down church buildings, and some were replaced by mosques. She found it rather strange and even horrible. There were long streets with new houses that looked very somber and there were many children who spoke foreign languages. There were tourists everywhere; they did not care about these matters and just visited all the traditional historic buildings in the center of the city, like the house where Rembrandt had lived.

She stopped and looked at the ducks. They followed Ria and she saw how beautiful they were with their white feathers and a kind of happy expression on their faces. She wondered if they ever had worries. Perhaps they discovered the existence of hunters when it was too late. She was amused by two of them who were diligently toiling and moiling in the duck-weed.

Above her were white clouds in the blue sky, and gulls in the distance. No, Ria did not want to go back to the big city. All her expectations had been different from what she had found there, sitting in her attic room peering at the rooftops. She would never joke any more, as she had done last year, about being independent and “completing my adolescence.” The old things of Elst were familiar; the city was threatening.

She saw a ship with a big light brown sail that did not move because there was no wind. Two young boys jumped from a small jetty and began to swim around. A woman on a bike passed Ria by, with a basket on the rear carrier.

O, how she had missed Elst during all those months in Amsterdam. She quickly wiped a tear from her smooth and rosy face. She remembered her brother Henk, with his impressive voice. He lived in the USA. He worked for a publisher of Christian books and he was engaged to the daughter of his boss. Her sister Ritske had married a minister in Scotland who was an invalid, but she had written that they were quite happy together.

She walked slowly on. She had plenty of ideas about what she could do now, but she was not bubbling over with excitement. What did the Lord want from her?

From a by-road arrived a ramshackle truck, with a lawn mower on it. The truck stopped and a young man got out and walked with a couple of long strides to the mower and put it down on the ground. He appeared very quiet and purposeful. He was tall and had broad shoulders, brown hair and a smiling face.

Ria went a few steps towards him, but felt unable to say anything. Suddenly their eyes met. He cleared his throat and said “I am Bram de Zeeuw. I am lending my Dad a helping hand today. I am a student at the Economic University of Rotterdam, but I still prefer life in Elst.”

“You too?” she faltered. “I studied in Amsterdam, but I want to stay here now. I feel I don’t fit in that world. You know what I mean.”

Bram looked at her, solemn. Then he said, “You mean that it has become a most wicked mess. Well, that is what I have seen of it in my case. I often take some books from the library and read them, sitting on a bench in the public garden. I am not that savage, you see.” He winked.

Ria laughed and showed her white teeth. “Do you go to a church?” she asked.

“Sure. I am Liberated Reformed. But wait, now I see it, I know you from grade school. You are Ria Westra, aren’t you.

“Yes, and I begin to remember you. You were that boy who was often standing in the hall, because you were never out of mischief!”

They went to each other and embraced, surprised and happy. “Wonderful,” he said. “Just to discover an unspoiled flower in the midst of the long grass. Nowadays there are few girls like you, do you know that, Ria?“

“I believe you. I watched the girls, and the boys they went with.”

“They live in sin,” muttered Bram. “I don’t want to join them. I understand now, why so many people are leaving the big cities and prefer living in a rural municipality or in the woods.”

They began to walk alongside the river, in the direction where she came from. She hooked her arm into his. They had to tell each other so much. He grinned, “This is halfway to wonderful, but needs some polishing.” They forgot about the lawn mower and talked about what they saw, and had learned and discovered, what they believed, what they expected of the future, the music they loved of Handel and Mozart, the nostalgia they embraced.

He noticed that her shoulder length hair had not been anchored with hair spray and that there was no powder on her face.

Bram de Zeeuw and Ria Westra became a very happy couple. They married in Arnhem, where family of them both lived, and they rented an empty farmhouse that had been left behind by a poor farmer. Ria did not become a doctor. Bram became a teacher in a Reformed school. Their marriage was blessed with four healthy children.

Soli Deo Gloria.