Chapter One Journal 1—Dutch East Indies
A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host
It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with
enough room for
children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick,
woody trunks and
make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The
roots, given time, look
no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually,
when the original
support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow
In a kampong—village—on the island of Java, in the then-called Dutch
East Indies, stood such a banyan tree almost two hundred years old. On foggy
evenings, even adults avoided passing by its ghostly silhouette, but on the
morning of my tenth birthday, sunlight filtered through a sticky haze after a
monsoon, giving everything a glow of tranquil beauty. There, a marble game
beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan
seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the
consequences became a journey that has taken me some three score and ten
years to complete.
It was market day, and as a special privilege to me, Mother had left my
younger brother and twin sisters in the care of our servants. In the early morning,
before the tropical heat could slow our progress, she and I journeyed on
back of the white horse she was so proud of, past the manicured grounds of our
handsome home and along the tributary where my siblings and I often played.
Farther down, the small river emptied into the busy port of Semarang. While
it was not a school day, my father—the headmaster—and my older half brothers
were supervising the maintenance of the building where all the blond-haired
children experienced the exclusive Dutch education system.
As we passed, Indonesian peasants bowed and smiled at us. Ahead, shimmers
of heat rose from the uneven cobblestones that formed the village square.
Vibrant hues of Javanese batik fabrics, with their localized patterns of flowers
and animals and folklore as familiar to me as my marbles, peeked from market
stalls. I breathed in the smell of cinnamon and cardamom and curry powders
mixed with the scents of fried foods and ripe mangoes and lychees.
I was a tiny king that morning, continuously shaking off my mother’s attempts
to grasp my hand. She had already purchased spices from the old man
at one of the Chinese stalls. He had risen beyond his status as a singkeh,
impoverished immigrant laborer from the southern provinces of China, this
elevation signaled by his right thumbnail, which was at least two inches long
and fit in a curving, encasing sheath with elaborate painted decorations. He
kept it prominently displayed with his hands resting in his lap, a clear message
that he held a privileged position and did not need to work with his hands. I’d
long stopped being fascinated by this and was impatient to be moving, just as
I’d long stopped being fascinated by his plump wife in a colorful long dress as
she flicked the beads on her abacus to calculate prices with infallible accuracy.
I pulled away to help an older Dutch woman who was bartering with an
Indonesian baker. She had not noticed that bank notes had fallen from her
purse. I retrieved them for her but was in no mood for effusive thanks, partly
because I thought it ridiculous to thank me for not stealing, but mainly because
I knew what the other boys my age were doing at that moment. I needed
to be on my way. With a quick “Dag, mevrouw”
—Good day, madam—I bolted
toward the banyan, giving no heed to my mother’s command to return.
For there, with potential loot placed in a wide chalked circle, were fresh
victims. I might not have been allowed to keep the marbles I won from my
younger siblings, but these Dutch boys were fair game. I slowed to an amble of
pretended casualness as I neared, whistling and looking properly sharp in white
shorts and a white linen shirt that had been hand pressed by Indonesian servants.
I put on a show of indifference that I’d perfected and that served me well
my whole life. Then I stopped when I saw her, all my apparent apathy instantly
As an old man, I can attest to the power of love at first sight. I can attest
that the memory of a moment can endure—and haunt—for a lifetime. There
are so many other moments slipping away from me, but this one remains.
What is rarely, if ever, mentioned by poets is that hatred can have the same
power, for that was the same moment that I first saw him. The impact of that
memory has never waned either. This, too, remains as layers of my life slip
away like peeling skin.
I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade
beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a
Washington, DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer—
also my daughter and only child—who refused to secure my release until I
promised to tell her the events of my journey there.
All these years later, across from her in that holding cell, I knew my daughter
demanded this because she craved to make sense of a lifetime in the cold
shade of my hollowness, for the span of decades since that marble game had
withered me, the tendrils of my vanities and deceptions and self-deceptions
long grown into strangling prop roots. Even so, as I agreed to my daughter’s
terms, I maintained my emotional distance and made no mention that I intended
to have this story delivered to her after my death.
Such, too, is the power of shame. Chapter Two
Beneath the banyan, a heart-stopping longing overwhelmed me at the
glimpse of her face and shy smile. It was romantic love in the purest sense,
uncluttered by any notion of physical desire, for I was ten, much too young to
know how lust complicates the matters of the human race.
The sensation was utterly new to me. But it was not without context. At
night, by oil lamps screened to keep moths from the flame, I had three times
by Sir Walter Scott, the Dutch translation by Gerard Keller. As
soon as the last page was finished, I would turn to page one of chapter one. I
had just started it for the fourth time. Thus I’d been immersed in chivalry at
its finest, and here, finally, was proof that the love I’d read about in the story
also existed in real life.
I was lost, first, in her eyes—unlike many of the Dutch, a hazel brown—
which regarded me with a calmness that pulled stronger than gravity. She looked
away, then back again. I felt like I could only breathe from the top of my lungs in
shallow gasps. Her hair, thick and blond and curled, rested upon her shoulders.
She wore a light-blue dress, tied at the waist with a wide bow, with a yellow butterfly
brooch on her right shoulder. She stole away from me any sense of sound
except for a universal harmony that I hadn’t known existed. So as the nine-year-old
Laura Jansen bequeathed upon me a radiant gaze, I became Ivanhoe, and
she the beautiful Lady Rowena. Standing at the edge of the chalked circle, I was
instantly and irrevocably determined that nothing would stop me from becoming
champion of the day, earning the right to bestow upon her the honor of
Queen of the Tournament.
Excerpted from Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer. Copyright © 2014 by Sigmund Brouwer. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.