An Orchid Among Dandelions: The Story of Mata Hari | Teen Ink

An Orchid Among Dandelions: The Story of Mata Hari

October 4, 2022
By Katdragon117 BRONZE, Atlanta, Georgia
Katdragon117 BRONZE, Atlanta, Georgia
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

I float in a void of darkness. 

Blurry, hazy waves of sensation slowly circulate through me, though I can’t quite comprehend what kind of sensations they are. I am not breathing, though it feels as though somehow I don’t need to. I feel, and yet I don’t, sustained in a thoughtless kind of limbo. 

A shard of a memory pierces my mind, bright and vivid as a solar flare. 

And suddenly I am three again, and my father, a man with a dark bushy beard, picks me up. Colored blobs clarify into hats of all shapes and sizes, and my small, chubby hands reach for one. My father lifts me up to a shelf and I grab a hat, plopping it clumsily on my father’s head. We are in a hat shop- my father owns it, I remember now. He laughs, and my mother comes into view, a kind-eyed woman with a look of concern stretched across her face. 

“Adam,” she says worriedly, “Not too high. You could drop her.” 

“Oh, she won’t fall,” my father assures her. He looks back at me; his eyes are warm. “And I doubt I could keep her from climbing even so. Our M’greet is fearless.” 

“Hopefully not too fearless,” murmurs my mother. 

“Antje, love, you need not fear,” my father tells her. “Here we are in Leeuwarden, and my investments in the oil factory are paying off splendidly. Our family shall have everything it needs, and so shall she. Everything shall be fine.” He puts a hand on top of my head. “Our orchid among dandelions,” he proclaims proudly. 

My mother says nothing, but the worry stays in her eyes. 

The scene shifts, and suddenly a different memory overtakes me. I am on the lawn. I am six years old and wear a brightly colored dress. I am old enough to know it is far nicer than the ones most of the girls at Miss Buys school wear, but still young enough to giggle with childish glee and dangle the toy I have stolen above my younger brother’s head. 

“M’greet, give it back!” yells my younger brother. Johannes. He is the oldest of my three brothers, and the only one old enough to properly play with- the younger two, Arie and Cornelis are inside with my mother. 

“Come and get it,” I tease, and he chases after me, our shouts of teasing and laughter carried away by the wind.  

“M’greet,” calls my father, and we screech to a halt. He beckons me to the edge of the lawn. “Come, little orchid. I have a gift for you.” 

I scamper over, and my eyes go wide as the sun. Standing behind my father is a miniature carriage, pulled by two goats that sniff at each other and stand restlessly in small harnesses. “Oh!” I gasp. 

“Do you like it?” he asks, smiling. 

“Goats!” I exclaim, bouncing with sheer delight. “Can I pick up my friends in it, papa?” 

He laughs. “Of course. You shall be the talk of the town, M’greet.” 

I squeal with delight and hug a goat. I remember this time like it was yesterday- when the light of childhood was still golden, when there was still a sparkle in my eyes. 

Before everything started to go wrong. 

In the next memory, I am thirteen, and sunk down behind a wall, my hands pressed to my ears to muffle the sounds of my parents shouting at each other. Since the shop went bankrupt everything has gone wrong- I have had to leave the prestigious academy I once attended, my parents fight all the time, and we’ve had to sell most of our things. 

Johannes is hunkered down beside me. He tugs on my sleeve. “M’greet?” he whispers. “Are they going to get divorced?” 

I shake my head wordlessly. I have no idea. 

I glance behind the wall and see the pain in my mother’s eyes. My parents don’t tell me what’s going on, but she doesn’t seem to be doing well. I am worried she is sick, though I fear what ails her cannot be healed like a typical illness can. 

I press my eyelids shut. It seems as though everything is falling apart. 

I wear funeral black as I step from the carriage. My mother is dead, my father has remarried, and here I am. It has been two years since the shop went bankrupt. I am fifteen. I feel far older than fifteen, and far more tired. 

Heer Visser, my godfather, is to be my new guardian. The family has broken. Nine months after my parents divorced, my mother died. There was no one to take care of us, so my brothers and I were divided among the relatives willing to take us in. I don’t know when I’ll see my brothers again. 

“Margaretha.” Heer Visser greets me stiffly, though not unkindly, pressing a kiss to each of my cheeks, “How good it is to see you. Welcome.” 

My chest sinks. Yes, it is my name. But it is only an unwelcome reminder that the days of sunlight and laughter, of being my father’s “orchid among buttercups”, are over. I will never again be called M’greet by my family. I am only Margaretha, forced to finish growing up alone. 

It only took two years for my life to turn south yet again.  

“I hate him,” I mutter. I am referring, of course, to the headmaster of the school where I was training to teach.

Heer Visser sighs and drapes his fingers over his eyes. He is a kind man, though it is plain to see he has no idea what to do with the stubborn 17-year-old girl who was entrusted to him. Being a kindergarten teacher was an acceptable position for a lady and not mind-numbingly boring, so I’d agreed to it. And I’d even been excited about it, until the headmaster had started flirting with me, far more than was acceptable for a workplace. 

I was fifteen years old, and already at the center of a scandal. Heer Visser had been horrified when I told him. “Too pretty for your own good,” he mutters worriedly into his hands. 

I glare over at him. I have grown up considerably since my days of attending Miss Buy's School, and now my long black hair and bright intent eyes- called impudent by some- make me stand out. Apparently, I am too free-willed, too spirited, too tall, too small-chested, but I am determined to embrace what I do have. People are drawn to me anyway, even if I am too tall. “I shall be exactly as pretty as I want,” I retort. 

Heer Visser sighs. “I’m pulling you from the school. It’s not safe for you there.” 

I nod. I’m still angry about the whole affair, but the last thing I want is to go back there. “What am I to do now?” I ask. “I still want to work.” 

He shakes his head. “I… do not know. There are not many suitable jobs for young women— you will have to stay here in the house, I presume, until we can find you a suitable husband to take care of you. It is too risky for you to leave.” 

The idea sends a sting of outrage down my spine. I get up from the table and stalk off to my room. 

I am not staying here. I will not sit idly by like a prize china doll for some man to claim, to lock me up on yet another shelf frozen and helpless. It is clear I cannot go back to the school, and indeed given the scandal I would not be able to get another job anywhere in this town. So I will have to go somewhere else. I am leaving Sneek and Heer Visser, my mind is made up. 

Up in my room, I yank down the journal that contains all of our family’s addresses. I have an uncle in the Hague, Mr. Taconis. I can go there to stay with him.

I am going, and I am leaving tonight. 

I throw my things into a bag and wait, wordless, a traveling cloak fastened around my neck, until all the lights in the house go out. 

Then I slip out the window and shimmy down the drainpipe stretching down the side of the house. The metal is cold beneath my hands, and the night wind tugs at the fabric of my skirt, the draft blowing around my ankles. 

I slip, and only barely catch myself, my fingers gripping the pipe so hard my knuckles turn white. 

At length, I reach the ground, and I pull my coat tighter around me. 

I take the first steps into the night, and into freedom. 

A week later, Mr. Taconis opens his door. There I stand, my eyes ringed with dark circles, my coat dirty, but I am alive and simmering with triumph. “Margaretha?” he asks in confusion. “What are you doing here?” 

“I’m in need of a place to stay,” I declare. 

Still confused, he ushers me inside. “Of course.” 

A year later, I am out for a walk, and a gust of cold wind riddles my clothes that reminds me exactly of the night I left Sneek. It is early spring, and I am eighteen and convinced I am infallible. 

I have stayed with my uncle for the past three years. He is a good man, though frankly, I have grown a bit bored. 

Something flutters in my peripheral vision, and I can see it is a newspaper, blowing through the air. I reach out and catch it. “Officer on Home Leave from Dutch East Indies Would Like To Meet A Girl of Pleasant Character,” reads a headline in an ad on the corner of the front page. “Object Matrimony.”

Hmm, I think. I have been looking for a new adventure, and frankly, I’ve always wanted to visit the East Indies. 

A month or so later, I step off a train in Amsterdam to meet the man I have traveled here for- Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf “John” MacLeod. He is perhaps twenty years my senior, and not a particularly handsome man- he is muscular with a large crooked nose and a thick white mustache curled on both ends. But his uniform is clean and decorated with many, many medals, and he is part of the Dutch upper class, which would give me the financial stability I so desperately need. 

“Miss Zelle?” he asks, and I give him a dazzling smile. 

“The one and only.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.” 

“The pleasure is all mine,” I respond, fluttering my eyelashes. “I’ve always liked a man in uniform.” 

He presses a kiss to the back of my hand. 

We continue exchanging letters that become increasingly intimate, and soon I find myself engaged to the Captain. We sweep into a whirlwind romance that lasts three and a half months— and on July 11th, 1895, we are married. 

I hate my husband, I think, pressing a cold rag to the bruise developing on my jaw. John has proved himself an alcoholic and an abusive monster. We have had two children, and when I was giving birth to our first child he wasn’t even there— no, he was with another woman. Norman-John, our son, and Jeanne, our daughter, are the only lights of my life. 

I find solace in studying the local culture and dance of the people here, though I cannot find it in my marriage. It seems the only times my hardships seem to fade away are when 

But I am not dancing now. I am sitting at my vanity, pressing a cold rag to my aching cheek and trying to hold back tears from the pain. 

It has been two years of my awful marriage, two years of torment. Both of our children got sick because of syphilis because John contracted it due to his philandering ways. He infected our children, and though Jeanne managed to fight it off, young Norman-John succumbed. I am utterly crushed. It is the last straw.

“THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!” I scream at my husband. It is not a smart thing to say, given how John usually reacts to me snapping back at him, but the agony and grief raging through me is beating dark and unceasing in my chest where there used to be a heart.  Our son is dead because of him. I do not care what he does to me.

My head snaps to the side so fast I cannot breathe, and then pain bursts into existence across my face as the force of the blow throws me sideways. He backhanded me across the face, I realize, so hard I slam into the cabinet on the wall and drop to my knees. 

I taste blood, and spit it on the carpet. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. 

“We’re getting a divorce,” I spit, the sound low and guttural and bent with rage. 

John narrows his eyes. “Fine,” he snarls. “But you will get nothing of mine.” 

I scoff. “So be it.” 

And he holds true to his word. I am awarded custody of Jeanne, our daughter, but he doesn’t pay a cent of the child support he is required to. And when she goes to visit him, he doesn’t let her return to me. 

There’s nothing I can do. I barely have the funds to feed myself, I can’t go against my ex-husband in court for kidnapping our daughter. 

I break down sobbing in my bedroom, but I grimly realize there’s nothing I can do but accept it. Though John has been a terrible husband, he’s always been a good father. Jeanne will be okay. 

She’ll likely be better off than I will, truthfully. 

I move back to Paris. I take the best job opening I can find, though that isn’t saying much- a horse rider in a circus. 

“And what do you want your stage name to be?” The man asks me. 

I am still fuming and stinging from John’s actions. This is a chance for retaliation, I realize, though only in a small way. 

I give my new employer a bitter smile. “Lady MacLeod.” I respond. John wants to take everything of mine? Well, I can take his name- and drag it through the mud while performing a job he would be horrified by. It is ironic and petty and exactly what I want right now. 

He nods blandly, not realizing everything that name symbolizes. “Excellent.” 

I start out as a horse rider until I am offered a position as an exotic dancer. It pays much better and I am struggling to make ends meet financially, so of course, I accept the position. It is not the most dignified way to make a living, but it is the only one possible. 

And it turns out to be… not at all like I expected. 

On a night just like any, other, I stand under the stage lights, their heat blazing down on my skin. I am in an exquisite silk outfit comprised of layers upon layers, standing in a striking position as the curtains rise. 

The audience is watching, hundreds of eyes fixed on me. 

And I begin to dance. 

I dance, and as I go I remove layer upon layer of clothing until I am in nothing but a bejeweled breastplate and jewelry. It is exactly the kind of routine that would scandalize my former husband and all his snobby family, but I find it… surprisingly fun. The audience’s eyes are glued to me. It’s not that I am extraordinarily beautiful— anyone could look like me. But it is my confidence that makes me stand out- I am spirited and willful and unapologetic as I dance. And it pays off- I am magnetic. Nobody can look away. 

I am no longer poor, pathetic Margaretha, abused by her husband and left with nothing. On stage, I am Mata Hari, the seductive, the enchanting. It means “sun” in Malay- and I shine like the brightest star on stage. 

Sure, perhaps this is the lowest and most shameful way to make money. But I am making the best of it, and even enjoying myself. 

This… isn’t bad. 

It’s not bad at all, I think, as my dance career begins to take off. I spin fantastical backstories for myself in interviews, saying I am a Javanese princess and the daughter of a baron. They aren’t true, but it is common for dancers to say they come from exotic beginnings. I become a success and am able to travel extensively, often getting invited to parties and performing at ballets and operas. And the seductive character I play on stage carries over into real life- I attract lovers, mostly military men, who pay in exchange for my company. 

This is not dignified work, perhaps. But I am a near-instantaneous success, and I am finally achieving the wealth and fame I have always dreamed of working for. For years, I am a stunning, famous dancer. And everything seems to be alright. 

I retire early, once I have enough money to live comfortably and have purchased myself a large home in the country. Then the tides of war start to approach. They are thick and palpable in the air just like an oncoming storm. 

I decide to move once the war breaks out. The Netherlands remains neutral in the war, so I am able to move unhindered. I cross between France and the Netherlands via France and Britain. 

And then something unexpected happens— I fall in love. He is a Russian captain named Captain Vadim Maslov serving with the French army in the war, dark-haired and handsome. He is younger than me, but we balance each other out remarkably well and instantly fall for each other. Our romance is intense and passionate and everything I had been wanting. For the first time, I feel secure. 

Until he is shot down. 

He is alive, the telegraph says, but badly wounded. They don’t know if he’ll live. 

I drop everything when I hear the news and travel as fast as possible toward the front where he is being hospitalized, but soldiers stop my coach as I try to travel the rest of the way there.  

“Let me through.” I demand. 

“Apologies, ma’am, you can’t go any further. You need permission to travel to the front.” 

“I need to see Captain Maslov,” I beg. “It’s urgent.” 

The two soldiers exchange glances, then one tells me, “wait here.” 

Later, I find myself sitting in front of agents from the Deuxième Bureau, the French intelligence agency. 

“Miss Zelle,” one says one, “We will let you travel to Captain Maslov, on one condition.” 

I nearly sag with relief. “I’ll do anything.” 

“We want you to become a spy for france.” 

I blink. “What?” 

“Your dutch nationality allows you to travel without trouble, because of the netherlands’ neutrality. Your movement has attracted some attention, and we have determined you would be a good candidate. You have also performed many times for Crown Prince Wilhelm, eldest prince of Germany, yes?” 

I nod.  

“Good. You are to seduce the crown prince, and then you are to extract military secrets and pass them to France. If you do this, we will pay you one million francs and you will be granted permission to travel to the front.” 

I nod slowly. Sure, it will be incredibly dangerous, but danger has never scared me. And if it’s my only chance to see Vadim again, it’s worth it. “I’ll do it.” 

A few days later, I burst through the doors of the makeshift hospital and sprint through it, my footsteps pounding on the floor. The building shakes as bombs and artillery shells sound in the distance, but my eyes are locked on the rows of beds. They are full of wounded soldiers. 

I spot him. He has bandages covering his eyes, but he is alive. 

“Vadim,” I say breathlessly, and fly into his arms. 

“Margaretha?” croaks Vadim, embracing me as tightly as he can manage “How- how are you here?” 

“Oh, it was easy,” I assure him. “I just have to spy for france.” 

His hands go still on my back. “What?” 

“Vadim, it was worth it.” 

Vadim presses a kiss to my forehead. “Margaretha, love, you’re too reckless.” 

I shrug carelessly. “Recklessness is what makes things fun.” 

And so I start my new job as a French spy. I travel to Madrid, and send out a message to military attache Major Arnold Kalle and ask to arrange a meeting with the crown prince of Germany. 

“Why do you want to meet with Crown Prince Willhelm?” Major Kalle asks suspiciously. 

I lean forward, making my eyes sparkle conspiratorially. “I have information I wish to relay to the crown prince.” 

The major raises an eyebrow.

“I have been offered a position as a French spy,” I say. “However, I would be willing to share French secrets with Germany instead, for the right price.” 

It’s a lie, of course. I have no intention of selling French secrets to the Germans. But posing as a double agent will help me gain access to Prince Willhelm, and then my real work can begin.

It is a cold winter day in 1917. I sit in my room at my hotel, the Parisian Hotel Elysée Palace, touching up my makeup and adjusting my hat— I have a meeting with the crown prince later today, and if I am to charm him, I will have to look the part. 

The door bursts open and three soldiers charge in, grabbing me by the wrists and head and slamming me down onto the table. “What is the meaning of this?!” I demand. 

“Margaretha Zelle, you have been charged with serving as a treasonous German spy,” the only soldier who isn’t holding me down declares. “You have betrayed France by serving as a double agent for germany, and will be tried shortly.” 

“What?!” I respond, stunned and confused. “That’s ridiculous— I haven’t betrayed france!” 

He gives me a cold glare. “Save it for the trial, Miss Zelle.” 

I stare back at him, speechless. 

The trial takes place in July. 

“Margaretha Zelle, you are accused of serving as a German double agent and causing the death of 50,000 soldiers.” 

My jaw drops open. Sure, I told the Germans some things, but it was all idle palace gossip and drama, nothing important. Nothing that caused anyone’s death. 

The charges and evidence against me mount, more and more ridiculous. 

“We intercepted radio messages to Berlin that described the helpful activities of a German Spy code named H-21, whose biography is so close to Zelle’s it is impossible she is not H-21. The transmissions came from german military official Major Kalle.” 

My face burns with fury. Major Kalle and the German intelligence knew the French had already decoded that radio stream. They knew the french would receive that information. Kalle revealed me to the french intentionally. The evidence— all falsified— continues to grow. It is all ridiculous, but the jury eats it up as each new piece condemns me further. 

I defend myself vehemently, protesting that my loyalty remains firmly with the allies, declaring my passionate love for France, which I have come to see as my adopted homeland. But it makes no difference. Though they have no concrete evidence that I am a traitor, it is a room of men against a single woman, and all of them are against me, even without reason. They want to see me burn, and so they will make me, whether I deserve to or not.  

My career has only condemned me in their eyes— “She is without scruples,” declares the accusing lawyer. “She is accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy."

I glance over at the pews where I see George Clemenceau, new leader of France, sitting, and suddenly I understand. France has suffered horrible casualties in the war, and Clemenceau’s regime is taking over. He needs some way to justify everything that has gone wrong in the war so far, he needs a scapegoat to justify his regime and cause public opinion to rise. And to a man like Clemenceau, a woman of questionable morals who society already looks down upon and sees as untrustworthy is a perfect, easy target. 

He’s just trying to look better, and he’s using my life to do it. 

Hot rage bubbles up in my chest. 

“Maragaretha Zelle, you have been found guilty,” declares the judge. 

I send a single baleful glare at the men who have condemned me, and then the door slams behind me as I am dragged out by the guards. 

I am thrown into a Parisian prison, and told to wait. 

And wait. 

I pass the time reading— I pick up some Buddhist literature, and pick at my meals. I am listless and bored, the days uneventful. 

After some time, an unfamiliar man steps into my cell. “Miss Zelle,” a man tells me. “Unfortunately, your request to be freed has been denied. As you have been convicted with treason, your execution has been scheduled for the 15th of October.” 

“What?” I reply, my eyes going wide. 

He repeats the information.

“That’s impossible,” I protest blankly. “I can’t be executed- I’m innocent.” 

He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Miss Zelle.” 

“It’s impossible,” I repeat numbly. “It’s impossible.” 

He pats me on the hand and leaves. 

I am going to die. 

I dream listlessly on the last night. I am awakened in the early morning by two nuns who shake me gently awake. I dress quietly— a long black velvet coat, edged around the bottom with fur, a felt hat tied with a silk ribbon. I braid my long black hair around my head. Though any peace of mind is unimaginable, the simple act of dressing myself helps me steel my nerves just slightly. “I am ready,” I say. 

They usher me from my paris prison cell out to an automobile. I sit in the back, my hands clasped on my lap. They do not stop shaking, even though my face remains even. I feel… remarkably composed. And hollow inside. I think perhaps the shock has not worn off. Perhaps that is a blessing. 

The car speeds through the slumbering city of paris; it is not yet daybreak. We stop at Caserne de Vincennes, an old fort. I step out of the car, and am lead to the middle of the court yard. The grim party is already assembled- Father Arbaux, the priest; two nuns, my lawyer, a french officer, and the firing squad. Father Arbaux motions the nuns forward and hands them a blindfold. It is for me to wear, i realize with a pang, and suddenly my heartbeat picks up, too fast. I do not want to. I do not want the last thing I see to be the canvas of a blindfold. No, I want to take my last breath of fresh morning air. I want to go out seeing the rosy paintbrush of dawn beginning to trace across the sky. 

“Must I wear that?” I ask my lawyer. 

“If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,” replies the French officer. He gives me a pained look and hurriedly turns away. 

I breath a small sigh of relief, though my heart is hammering so fast it doesn’t make much of a difference. 

 I am not blindfolded, and  refuse to be bound. If I am to die today, I will die with dignity. 

The officer gives an order, and the twelve men of the firing squad take their positions around me. Another order, and they raise their guns in perfect sync. 

Defiantly, I blow a kiss to the firing squad. 

They raise their guns, and there is a flash and a bang. I feel myself slowly crumple to the ground. 

Suddenly sensation floods me. Agony pounds through my body, emanating from my collarbone, my hip, too many places across my torso to count. The pain stabs together, a cacophony of knives, discordant and overlapping. I can’t open my eyes but I can feel they are sticky with blood, as is the rest of me. I have been shot many, many times.

Somehow I realize that I am dying. Fast. 

I would cry out if I could, but the pain is too much. 

Faintly I hear footsteps approaching me, and the click of a gun being loaded. 

“Coup de grace,” someone whispers, and through my addled brain somehow I can translate those three small words. Coupe de grace. Mercy killing. 

The cold metal of the gun barrel of a revolver presses against my temple. 

A flash behind my closed eyelids. 

The rest is silence. 

I have no more memories, I realize, as I sink back into darkness. That was my last one. My execution was the end of my life as M’Greet, as Mata Hari, as Margaretha Zelle. That was my life, full of pain and hardship, and shreds of dignity and joy scraped from places where there seemingly was none to be found. That was my life, as an ‘orchid among dandelions’ as my father used to say, cut short. 

It was not a happy life. I was not a happy person- strong-willed and used and angry and troubled and blamed for things I did not due. 

But my life is gone. 

And I have no more chances. 

I have no way to change my fate, no matter how much I tried to shape my life. 

It is over.

The author's comments:

A creative reimagining of the story of Mata Hari, who was an exotic dancer and spy during World War One. 

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