The trolley rumbled up DeLairiessestraat. Only meters from where the tracks
curve away from the plaza, the conductor gripped the hand brake, planted both
feet against the floorboards and pulled. The iron teeth engaged and the
trolley screeched to a halt. Oblivious to the din, Dora Landau moved to the rear of the car. The narrow doors hissed, opened with a slap, and she stepped onto the
roadway, squinting into the mid-morning sun. Adjusting the strap of her bag,
she headed for the tunnel running under the Rijksmuseum.
The air in the passageway tasted of damp stone. Lowering her head against
the cold, Dora strode toward the gray-blue sky at the far end of the tunnel.
As she crossed the square and approached the canal, she admonished herself
not to stop, not to stand on the bridge and watch the water thread ribbon-like around each bend. It was on this bridge that her mother first taught her the art of mixing colors - yellow and red stirred together to becoming the flaming orange of a fall
sun - and that her father had lectured her on the intricate system of canals and dikes and how they could hold back the power of the sea.
The narrow centuries-old houses were mirrored on the water, their balconies
jutting like parapets over massive doors. In the spring, those balconies
were waterfalls of red and pink geraniums. No matter what the season, Dora
heard boots, the chilling rhythm of hob nail landing on wood.
Motorboats were tied along the water in intervals, flowerpots perched atop
their glassed in cabins. Those in disrepair listed ominously, brackish water
pooling on the decks riding just above the waterline.
She glanced at her watch and quickened her pace. As she turned into a familiar
road and hurried by the old elementary school, her chest tightened. For some, such feelings were triggered by railroad platforms. For Dora, it was this school, where they had worn starched dresses and hair bows. The Nazis converted her classroom into a holding cell and the Director's office into an interrogation room. When the war ended, there were not enough children to fill even one room.
Dora climbed the steps leading to a massive red-lacquered door, its brass
knocker shaped like an oversized fist. She pressed a lever and heard the
buzzer, followed immediately by a loud click. Pushing the door with both
hands, she stepped inside.
A hallway stretched before her. Following the passage, she arrived at a desk
A boy chasing a running dog bumped into her and fell. She helped him to
and waited for the receptionist to acknowledge her presence. The woman
continued to work, fingers flying across the keyboard.
“I'm Mrs. Landau,” said Dora. “Landau,” she repeated, and spelled the name.
The woman swiveled toward a list pinned to the wall and ran a polished nail
down the schedule. Gesturing toward a high-backed chair, she returned to her
Dora sat and prepared herself for a long wait. Before she could settle into
the chair, she heard her name called.
She stood and followed the receptionist into a small, melancholy room. It was dark,
with damask curtains draped ceiling to floor. She was contemplating her
escape when the doctor walked in.
“Sit, please, here,” he said, touching the chair facing his desk. Dora sat,
clasped both hands in her lap like an obedient child and waited. He removed
papers from a file and read them. There was a table covered with a white
cloth, on which sat a tray filled with scalpels, scissors, rolls of gauze.
“May I call you Dora?” he asked.
Dora blinked. The question hung over her, suspended from the finest thread.
She was transported back to the clinic near Utrecht and the young French
nurse. Dora's French was only slightly better than the nurse's Dutch and it was
mainly through gestures that they conveyed their thoughts and needs. After
several weeks of addressing one another with the formal vous, the nurse took
her hand and asked, “May I call you Dora?”
She wanted to nod, felt the tic on her eyelid, but said nothing. The doctor
leaned closer, eyes searching, as if to detect a change of heart.
“You do understand that even minor surgery can be difficult for a woman of
She looked into his eyes. “I’m certain.”
With that, he slapped his hands against both knees and pushed himself from
the chair. “Let's get started, shall we?”
Dora watched him move about the room. When he was satisfied that everything
was in place, he gave her a reassuring smile. She wanted to respond, but the
sight of the surgical instruments held her back. He reached behind him and
pushed a button mounted on the wall. A buzzer sounded in the hallway.
A nurse in a starched white uniform entered the room and took control, as if
this were her domain and both Dora and the doctor her guests. She took Dora's
coat and hung it over a hook near the door. She produced a pillow, which she
adjusted against Dora’s back.
“Better?” she asked.
Dora looked into the woman's eyes and nearly responded “Better than what?”
Instead, she thanked her.
The nurse helped the doctor off with his jacket, draping it over another
hook, pulled a lab coat from a drawer and held it while he slipped his arms
through. The coat was frayed around the hem and cuffs, well-used, which Dora
found comforting. Still, she trembled.
The surgeon scrubbed his hands and the nurse snapped latex gloves over them. Perched on a stool, he rolled closer to the table, while the nurse pushed Dora’s sleeve above the elbow and positioned her forearm on a folded towel. The doctor adjusted a magnifying glass over the arm and watched as the nurse swabbed the arm with antiseptic. He pricked the skin in several places with a needle, paused, then pricked the area again. Dora reported feeling nothing. With that, he took a delicately-shaped scalpel from his nurse, held it just above the skin and, without raising his eyes,
began to cut.
Dora had been resolute that she would watch. How many times had she imagined
this operation and the euphoria she was certain would follow? How many times
had she contemplated the possibilities that arose from removing a hated
piece of one's life? But now that a scalpel was moving through her skin, she
could not look.
The surgeon cut deeper. Sweat pooled between her breasts, behind her knees.
The room swayed, she reached out to steady herself.
“Don't move,” he said, eyes never leaving his work.
The hand in her lap became a fist. Her stomach churned. She forced herself
to think of the canal, motor boats, her children. She felt pressure on her
arm, was aware of dabbing and sponging, but no pain. The removal was kinder
than the application. Her head was spinning. She told herself to remember how it
had been before the war, when she wore sundresses with short sleeves, her
arms tanned to a rich brown by the summer sun hanging over the North Sea.
A hand brushed her arm and then stopped. The nurse was placing a cloth over a
small bowl. “Please,” said Dora. With a gesture almost reverent, the nurse pulled
back a corner of the cloth and tipped the bowl forward. Inside was a
shriveled piece of discolored skin. Dora recited the numbers to herself and
the bowl was silently removed.
Walking out of the building into the brisk Amsterdam air, she felt an
exhilarating sense of freedom.
Over the next week, she stared often at the bandage, happy to feel the
twinges of healing. When she returned to have the sutures removed, her heart
The doctor peeled away the adhesive and the layers of discolored gauze. When
the wound was fully revealed, he took a closer look and said “Let's wash it
Something in his voice alerted Dora. She wanted to look, but his bowed head
blocked her view.
When the wound was cleaned, the doctor accepted tweezers and a small scalpel
from his nurse and removed the sutures. Only then did he sit upright and
look directly at his patient. “So, there we are,” he said.
Dora looked, but could not speak. He placed his hand over hers.
“We call it a keloid,” he said. “It's a kind of scar tissue.” He added
quickly, “Of course, there is no way to predict.”
Dora stared at her arm, at the raised skin like a low-slung mountain range
with haphazard peaks and valleys.
“I'm confident that most of the redness will disappear, but the scar tissue
will, for the most part, remain.”
Dora nodded dully.
“What’s most important,” he went on. “The numbers are gone. And the pain, is
“Almost none,” she told him. She was tempted to lie, to make him suffer.
“Then we’re finished,” he said, standing abruptly.
On the first mild day, she went to her closet and pulled out the new dress.
She slipped it over her head and admired her reflection in the mirror. She
left the house, arms and neck bare.
Crowds flocked the walkways lining the canals. Children ran across the
bridges as parents searched for shaded spots. Dora wandered happily among
them, enjoying the sun on her skin. Standing on the bridge over the
Lunbaansgracht, she imagined her parents beside her.
“Oh, there, don’t cry,” she said, brushing off his clothes. She turned over his hands and smiled. “There, see, not even scrapes.”
He sniffed and nodded, rubbed his wet cheek. Then, stretching out a hand, he
touched her arm. Edging closer, he asked, “How did you get that scar?
Victoria Zackheim is the author of The Bone Weaver and originator of WretchedReviews.com. In addition to being a freelance book editor, she teaches creative writing in the UCLA Writers’ Program, is an adjunct instructor at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, CT, and writes reviews for The San Francisco Chronicle. Ms. Zackheim lives in San Francisco.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.