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essay by Jeanine van Berkel – 29 November 2022
dossier: Bodies and Breath: Embodied Research & Writing
My body is a house
Which means it is a place that I can leave
Which means it is also a place to come back to
At the moment,
I am lost inside
This haunted house

I am filled with thousands of rooms
just waiting
They breathe in the emptiness of forgotten memories


First I entered my mouth
but there is nothing left here
All my teeth have fallen out
My tongue tells me that once there were thirty-two of them but they slowly left as there was nothing left to say. Had they possessed the words, they might have said that it was not as if they expected to find something that could make history hurt less or fill the hole inside of us, because it was not the kind of hole that could be filled and then would go away.1 So
I begin to count back. Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six is the amount of years I am here inside this silence(d) body.

My body is the known and the unknown together. It embodies many questions and houses the answers as well, but I did not find those yet.

My body has been questioned time and time again about how it looks that
sometimes I began to doubt myself. I look like I am not from here or there. (I guess) I am from everywhere and I am from nowhere. (I just cannot remember where that is).

I begin to trace the inside of my mouth with my finger. The texture of the wall is soft and slimy. I wonder if you can hear me through the gap of my teeth. The air inside is heavy and wet. My gaze is softened by the red hue that fills the space. At the back of the room I see darkness. I begin to move towards it but the floor is uneven and bounces back with every step I take. I fall


When I open my eyes
I am in another room.
I have to get used to the lights in here. It is quite dark
it seems as if there are some candles lit in the corners. My body feels stiff so I stretch it. First I wiggle my fingers and toes. After that I carefully move my legs and arms. My body rolls to the side and now the lights are on the ceiling. With the movement, I hear the tinkling of dead coral
As if I am under water
I sit up and look around
In the middle of the room sits a pile of bones
They are small and when I pick one up, it fits right in my hand.

With my other hand, I make a fist and think about how my mama turned purple
not once but many
while looking at my fist, I remember a memory that is not mine
I was there though but I was inside the water and my mama was drowning
deep into the purple sea
there was not even an ocean floor
only the core of the earth which held us until it was over
my eyes closed the whole time
so I asked the sea what happened
then I asked the ocean floor what happened but they were not there
then I asked the core what happened
because my mama could not talk for ten years
sometimes grief is slow like that

But I wonder
what is there left to say?


My fist reminds me of the Hand
the man who looks like me but I have never met him I only see him when I look in the mirror
his black eyes are looking back at my black eyes and I wonder if these are the same eyes looking b(l)ack
but I do not know the answer to this question
because I cannot remember him
not even a little

Yesterday, I dreamed of him
inside of my subconscious he died. One of my half-brothers told me. I did not know how to feel. I have thought about this moment already

many times.
I tried to imagine how it would feel.
Would I feel loss?
Would I feel grief?
Would I feel like the opportunity to meet him would have slipped
through my hands?

The next day, I flew to Curaçao. Almost in a haze I arrived at the funeral home. The room was dark purple. When I entered, I saw all these unfamiliar familiar faces looking at me. I focused on the casket that was open, but horizontally turned away from sight. I walked over and slowly walked around to see

He could have been anybody.
I did not recognize his

And I felt nothing.

Suddenly, he opened one eye and peaked at me. He was not dead. He tricked me to come here just so he could see me, so I could see him, so he saw me, so I saw him, so he saw himself, so I saw myself, so

I stored the dark purple room inside my shoulder
since then, I have never entered it again


The negative space of my fist
the bone
the coral
the imprint
has crumbled to dust. I walk towards the pile and take another one
make dust
and another and another until the whole floor is covered in a layer of soft off-white matter
I have been here for hours already
maybe days

Behind me a door opens. I see a silhouette walking inside the room. They begin to collect the dust with their hands. I only see their arched back
I walk over and softly touch their shoulder but there is nothing to touch
my hand goes right through
their body
the ghost
does not move
keeps collecting the residue

There are many ghosts wandering through this house. I do not always see them. I just know that they are here
wandering in the silence of lost memory
wandering until they are home
But I do not think I will ever find home
Maybe home is wandering until it is home


It is warm here. I have missed being warm as I am in a country that is cold. I do not live here, I stay here. That is a difference. It gives me reason to keep dreaming of a place to call home. I have forgotten where I am from. I have forgotten my island. The cold wind has made my skin almost translucent so that I would blend in but that never happened. My curly black hair has seen too much to trust anyone
that is why it started a riot. Sometimes the hurt is so great that there is nothing left to do than take it all even if it is not yours to take

Last year my house almost got burned down. There is a pure liquid fire threatening to annihilate. And I’m afraid2

I find myself in an endless room
with rows of bones
on different rectangular sized pieces of cloth
the ones near me have a lighter color than the ones farther away. I walk over
and see that they are still wet
In this room the bones are drying
I know this because I have made them all myself
I keep molding the same shape over and over again
First in my left hand
my right hand
back to my left
until it hurts
What do I keep looking for?

Slowly all the empty rooms are being filled with memories
I turn silence into bones
just so I can hold on to memories I will never know
just to fill the empty space inside my house
inside my body
There are still so many empty rooms left
Sometimes I choose not think about the emptiness but it does not disappear
For a while it fades from the mind but I know it creeps like a parasite into my soft tissue, muscles and glands.3 It slowly eats my body from the inside.


I stretch my fingers
here I store all my lovers so I remember who I have fallen for
I keep the love story of my mama and the Hand
even though the only place they will ever see each other again is my face
I wonder if I am a painful reminder of the person she so badly wants to forget but still haunts her when she closes her eyes even when it is more than a generation ago
(She said, “no, it is not like that at all.”)


I have been walking for a while now. The hallway I am in is slightly curved towards the left. I am not sure if I have been here before as there are so many rooms, hallways, stairs, walls, floors
but never a window. I am not sure where the light is coming from but there is just enough for me to see
a gaping hole to my right. My belly begins to growl as if I am hungry
I know I have to be close to my core. I move my body to the ground and lay on my stomach
so I can look over the edge
inside the hole I see a bright liquid
just below the surface I see some objects floating
I cannot quite see what they are so I move myself a few centimeters forward
a gold glimmer catches my eyes. I think these are the gold earrings my mama bought from her first salary and gifted them to me a few years back
the elongated hoops carry two dolphins inside
a big one and a small one
my mama and me
These earrings carry meaning, history, memory
What if you transfer the memory to a piece of paper. Is it still the same?

Suddenly, the liquid begins to rise. I grab the earrings in the movement
while I am completely surrounded
drenched by the gooey, stingy fluid
I hold my breath and close my eyes. I hold the earrings in my fist. Everything is going really fast and I try to grab
something anything

The next thing I know I gulp for air. I have a salty taste in my mouth
salt tells the history of the sea
which is heavy with the lives of people that did not make it to the other side
I have crossed so many times but I still wander from side to side
in the in between
I shuttle back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead because of the stories not passed on, the ancestors not remembered, the things lost, and the debts not yet paid. I am the “come, go back, child” that braves the wreckage of history and bears the burdens that others refuse.4I am restless

I look around. I am at the center of my stomach
house. I have seen enough for now because I know I cannot escape this haunted
house. After everything, I crawl out of my belly bottom. I know I will have to go back
I promise I am coming back
But maybe not right now
Maybe not tomorrow


1Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, June 2007, pp. 199
2Rebecca Walker, Black White Jewish – Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead Books New York, 2001) pp.184 - 187
3Rebecca Walker, Black White Jewish – Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead Books New York, 2001) pp.184 - 187
4Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), New York, June 2007, pp. 86