We were warned to be careful not to catch lice, or if we caught them to report to our counselor for treatment. When I had gone to elementary school in Brussels, the school nurse came every week to check our hair. We had to go to the front of the class where she would pass long tweezers through our hair while she kept her distance. I never knew at the time what it was for and nobody enlightened me. I always joked weakly that I did wash my hair once a week when I took my weekly bath. Even in winter, when our bathtub was frozen because the water pipes ran on the outside of the building, my mother took me to the public bath where we took turns in the same water in order to pay for only one bath. I had no idea that this violent itchy sensation on my scalp was caused by lice which had elected to frolic in my hair and use the hair behind my ears as an incubator for their eggs. I could only scratch to soothe this constant itch. Soon oozing crusts covered my scalp so that I had difficulties combing through my hair.

The wood pin
The wood pin

One day, Mademoiselle Aline, our counselor, saw me scratching my scalp. When she took a close look at my hair, she could not believe the extent of the damage. It was usual in the case of full lice infestation to simply cut off all the hair as that was the most efficient and permanent cure. I dreaded this so much and it was one of the reasons I had not reported the lice. Mademoiselle Aline was full of compassion and understanding. She sat me on a chair and worked for hours cutting all the hair underneath while leaving a fine layer of hair to cover the bald spots. Then I had to endure several rinses of the most awful stuff which was supposed to kill all the lice and their eggs but also burned my scalp. When all the lice were eradicated, I was at peace again and forever grateful to Mademoiselle Aline. When my birthday came around she surprised me with a pin about 2 1/2” x 1” hand-carved out of wood with the pin attached with thread, having my name, Sylvie, on it. This is the only memento I have kept to remind me of my years in hiding.

No sooner had I recuperated from the lice invasion than I became the victim of La Gale34. This most embarrassing disease made its first appearance among the younger children, the pisse-en-lits. We older girls were enlisted to help bathe the infested children and to help treat them with sulfur solutions which smelled worse than rotten egg. The bathroom consisted of six stone bathtubs, each filled with two boys who had to be treated every day. Nobody told us how contagious this gale was, and soon I came down with it. I was covered from head to toe with little red pimples which itched like crazy. One of the telltale signs of scabies are the little pimples that extend between the fingers. This time Madame Elias took me in hand. She took me to the bathroom and submitted me to the awful sulfur rinse which burned the skin and burned la gale.

Lice and la gale were nothing compared to my ordeal with the anthrax on my derrière. Our diet of ersatz bread, ersatz margarine, “baptized” nonfat milk and only some vegetables did not give us the vitamins our growing bodies needed. Scratched mosquito bites got infected and filled with pus in no time. Soon big craters would form on our skin. One such crater on my leg went almost down to the bone. Thanks to a kind counselor who brought me saindoux (lard) from his own home, which I filled the hole with every day. The crater healed very slowly, like new bark grows on a tree around the cut mark of a sawed-off branch. It took months and months to heal and when the last crust fell, a bluish oval scar remained to this day.

Each of my legs has a few of these scars and so does my derrière, except that I never saw that part of my anatomy. I developed this anthrax during my first summer in Cul-des-Sarts. A simple mosquito bite developed into a sore which, because of its location, I just ignored, hoping that it would go away. Unfortunately, the sore grew and grew and got so infected that it totally disabled me. I finally had to lie on my stomach in bed, and moaned day and night “Maman.” The girls brought me my meals and water but there really was nobody to take care of me.

For about three days, during which I must have run a fever, I felt utterly abandoned and alone. Then word spread about the huge carbunkel on my behind. Everybody came to view this smoldering volcano getting ready to erupt. Leontine came to look and advise hot compresses. Madame Dumont and Madame Elias took turns gently uncovering my rear end. I was the only one who never saw this source of all my suffering, described to me as the largest anthrax they had ever seen, all black around a central pus head. Meanwhile my behind throbbed day and night.

Finally the supreme power, Madam Van Hal, came and touched and poked all around the huge boil while I screamed away. Did I perceive a worried look in her face or was it only pity for my pain? So far no doctor had been called in. For two more days she came regularly to check on the hot compresses and to look and feel whether the anthrax was ripe. Each time her gentle fingers touched the periphery, I screamed in pain. It probably should have required a surgeon and his knife to lance the anthrax but Madame Van Hal was going to handle it with Leontine’s help. She pressed down with both hands and pinched the carbunkel open while I hollered with pain. Pus started to spurt all over while Leontine tried to collect it in a cup. They kept commenting what a large amount of pus the anthrax had contained. My butt still ached but the throbbing was decreasing. Two more times the anthrax had to be lanced before I was back on my feet again, embarrassed by all the commotion I had caused, also embarrassed that so many people had viewed my rear end. I was grateful to the girls who had been so compassionate and helpful while bearing my moaning without complaints and bringing me food and water, or who had helped me to the bathroom. I also felt deeply grateful to the adults who had relieved me of my pain. I made a promise to myself never to be sick away from home again. Anthrax, lice and scabies were the physical low points of my stay in the Chateau Philippe, Cul-des-Sarts.

In all things there is beauty. With the first rays of spring, when it was warm enough for us to picnic outdoors, we would go on an excursion in the afternoon, taking our goûter with us. Our goûter consisted of bread slices smeared with ersatz margarine and jelly. Each batch of four or five slices was piled on top of the previous batch turned ninety degrees, all that bread stacked in a huge laundry basket. Two older kids had to carry the big basket by the handle on each side. Three or more kids had to carry the large jugs of juice. Another basket was filled with drinking bols and so we set out in a cortège (procession) down the road, sometimes crossing the French border where Victor the Belgian customs official was stationed. We ended up in the shade of the huge age-old tilleul (linden tree), its limbs larger than many a tree trunk).

However, the best excursion was when we headed for the daffodil field along the creek. There, I could lie in the meadow and marvel at the fresh yellow and gold daffodils shimmering in the sun. It was the most beautiful and uplifting sight for me, especially after a gray and drab winter. A few years later, back in high school in Brussels, when I learned about the English poet Wadsworth and his daffodil poem, my memory could transport me back to the daffodil meadow in Cul-des-Sarts while I recited his poem to myself.

Next: My Brother’s Visit and Other Events