The Baker From Krabbendam
Province of N. Holland - 1920
Elisabeth wearily climbed the stairs to the tiny attic, where her two-and-a-half-year-old second-born son slept. The bottle of brandy and a spoon were in her hands. Doctor’s instructions, she reminded herself, still a little nervous that this might not keep little Johannes alive. She was willing to try anything. So many in their tiny one-street village of Krabbendam had already died, and her heart ached for each one of them. Typhus had swept through like a vicious beast, taking so many. They’d been her neighbours, her friends. Typhus. A dreaded name at the best of times, and this moment was not one of them.
The small blonde-haired boy was pale, weak, and lay in a sweaty stupor, barely able to respond to his mama’s voice. She gently sat on the edge of his cot and propped the pillows up behind his head. Elisabeth unstoppered the brandy bottle and poured some of the golden liquid into the spoon.
“Here schatje, you need to swallow this,” she urged him gently, lifting his head gently. The youngster complied, swallowed and made a face, but didn’t complain. There was no strength. She gave him another spoonful and again, he swallowed weakly.
“Two or three spoonfuls every hour,” the doctor had said. “that’s the only thing I can suggest now. That, and pray. We’ve done everything we know to do, there’s nothing more. The Lieve Heer must do the rest.”
Elisabeth laid down the spoon and re-stoppered the bottle. She bent her head in fervent prayer. “Dear Lord,” she prayed, “heal my son. Please, let him live.”
The brandy feedings continued for what seemed like an interminable time. While young Johannes slept, Elisabeth washed all surfaces of his room, and she included even the few toys he possessed. The bedding was washed, and the floor, walls, and woodwork scrubbed. The rest of the house followed suit.
While she worked, her mind conjured up the germs, bugs and bacteria fleeing the house in terror to escape the invading cleanliness of the lye soap suds.
“Take that, you foul beasts! How dare you attack my son!” With every swipe of the sudsy rag, she sent the creatures, in her mind at least, fleeing or dying.
Johannes didn’t remember much of the illness that almost killed him. He barely remembered drinking brandy. But he did remember the surprise he felt at picking up his toys, only to discover that they looked so clean!
Eventually, Johannes returned to play with whichever of his friends were left. Not much was said of the losses, and life carried on. More babies were born, children grew, and his small band of friends developed into a force to be reckoned with.
As time went on, some of the youngsters became a source of irritation to one Krabbendam resident in particular. The entire village of perhaps 100 people all knew each other, more or less, so it was not hard to understand why.
One such neighbour was a cantankerous old man named Joris, on whom eight-year-old Johannes and a few of his friends delighted in playing tricks. The houses were notoriously small, especially in the tiny villages that dot the countryside. In the tiny hamlet of Krabbendam, the front doors opened right onto a very narrow sidewalk, if they were lucky enough to have one. If not, they opened to the cobblestone road. Krabbendam was built along a dijk and there isn’t much room on the top of one.
In the fall and winter months of the year, when daylight wanes early in the day, candles and lanterns were lit to illuminate the indoors. The old man was a bit stingy with the use of his candles and usually went up the steep and narrow staircase to sleep the dark night away. Typical of most Dutch staircases, should the home have a second floor, they were usually always situated right inside the tiny front hallway, with the bottom ending about a meter and a half from the front door.
The boys all knew the habits of old Joris. They soon came up with the perfect prank.
Young Johannes hung around after the supper hour had passed, with two other bored eight-year-olds. It was already dark, and an equally dark thought was running in loops in the head of one of them.
“Hey Kees, d’ja still have that old barrel out behind your dad’s shed?” asked Thijs.
“I think so. Why’d you want to know?”
“Do you remember the last time old man Joris had his front hall and outside stoop scrubbed down?”
“Huh? Why would we remember a thing like that?” The other two looked a little puzzled at him.
Thijs stood his ground. Carefully, he laid out his plan. The boys were gleefully game and set to work. First, the barrel, which they’d managed to cart quietly away from the shed, and towards the deep, water-filled ditch on the other side of the road. The barrel was duly filled with slootwater and positioned near, but out of sight of Joris’ front door.
Thijs walked up to the old man’s front door and pulled the doorbell lever. It rang shrilly inside, and they could all see, from the darkness through the tiny side window next to the door, that old Joris had gone to bed. The three waited for a moment, watching through that window, and when they could see the light from the candle come bobbing down the stairs, they ran.
The door slowly opened. With sleepy eyes, Joris peered around outside, shook his head, and slammed the door, after which the candlelight glow could be seen bobbing back upwards through the window and disappearing. The boys waited about 10 minutes and repeated the procedure. Again, the candlelight bobbed down the stairs, the boys ran, and the door opened. This time, however, after the door had slammed shut, they saw no candlelight bob back upwards. It was time.
The boys hefted the barrel between them, and very quietly set it down, tilting it to lean with the upper rim resting and balanced against the closed front door. When everything looked right, Joh gave the bell lever a good pull, and all three ran like the wind.
Joris, thinking he would outwit the boys at their own game, stood waiting inside the door, candle snuffed out, ready for the next ring of the bell. The door jerked open with a bang, and the entire barrel tipped forward into the front hallway, giving it, and much of what lay beyond, a good soaking.
Joris’ curses could be heard up and down the quiet street, but the boys were long gone into the dark. After laughing uproariously at their success, they separated and made their way home through the secret back ways that only eight-year-old boys would know, avoiding Joris’ house as they went.
It was the conversation at many a dinner table the next evening, including the one belonging to the Grin family.
“Did you hear what some rascals did to Joris?” Jacob announced in a stern voice. Joh tried to look as innocent as possible, but mother, with the week-old baby, Klasina at her breast, had a gleam in her eye. “No, tell us what happened.”
Johannes’ father recounted the tale as he’d heard it from Joris. He looked around the table sternly at his eight older children, daring them to confess to the misdeed. The children kept eating, but one or two tiny snickers bubbled up. Father harrumphed crossly, “It’s not a laughing matter! Those hooligans ought to have a good whipping! If it were one of mine…” but he got no further.
The baby’s head was bobbing strangely up and down on Elisabeth’s breast, until Jacob, looking upwards, realized that Elisabeth was silently laughing, her face red, with tears streaming down her cheeks and her chest bouncing. When she saw that she’d been caught, she burst out laughing. Johannes snickered once and was just as lost as his mother. He too started to guffaw loudly. One by one, the rest of the large brood followed suit, until the entire family, except for Jacob, was laughing uproariously.
Jacob couldn’t help himself. As hard as he tried to maintain the stern face, Johannes noticed the corner of Papa’s mouth trembling, and his entire face reddened with the effort to hold it in.
Finally, mirth claimed the upper hand, and he too began laughing. He couldn’t help himself any longer. “Blast you, anyway!” He scolded his wife, as he laughed. “How can I maintain discipline of my own children, when all you do is make me laugh over bad behaviour?”
“It was time for Joris to scrub down that filthy front stoop and hallway anyway!” Elisabeth laughed. “Now he’s had a good head start. He should be thanking them!”
To be on the safe side though, Johannes thought it might be expedient to lay off the pranks for at least a little while. The air was still filled with days to do mischief, after all. He still remembered with relish a few weeks ago, when they’d gotten Joris good for accusing them of stealing a few eggs from his hen house. Stealing was one thing the boys would never have done, indeed, doors were never locked, nor guard dogs kept to keep out prowlers. Theirs was a simple, honest existence.
Johannes himself was the one who had thought up that prank. He’d somehow gotten hold of a large ball of thin twine. With it, they’d walked up to Joris’ door one evening, and tied the end of it to the doorbell lever. Then they walked slowly away from the house, unwinding the twine as they went, making sure it didn’t snag anywhere.
They got to the other side of the road down a way, where he had a long, sturdy pole ready on the bank of the wide ditch. After tossing the ball of twine, still unraveling, over to the other side, one by one they poled themselves over. That day the water level was rather high, they guessed about a meter deep, which was perfect for what they had in store for Joris.
The boys crouched down in the tall grass growing on the other side of the ditch. Normally it would have been be kept short by grazing sheep, but they hadn’t been moved to the Krabbendam dike yet. Hiding from sight, the twine strung across the ditch, Johannes gave a mighty yank on his end of the twine, hard enough to move Joris’ doorbell lever and make it ring.
Joris opened the door and noticed the string tied to the lever. Then he noticed the string leading away from the house and down the road. He could have just untied and left it, but no, Joris had to see where it led to.
He undid the twine from the lever and followed it down the road, winding it, as he usually did, around his hand as he walked. By the time he got to where it spanned the ditch, his hand was firmly encircled by twine. Joris hesitated, thinking how he could jump the ditch without actually landing in it, and getting his feet, or worse, wet. There was a nice sturdy pole lying on the opposite bank, but that was of little use to him, standing where he was.
Joris edged a little closer to the apex of the bank, judging whether or not he’d make the jump. At that moment, Johannes pulled the twine tight across the ditch and gave a mighty heave. Joris’ captive hand was pulled violently forward and he flew straight into the water, helpless to divest himself of the twine quick enough to avoid being pulled forward into the water.
Johannes chuckled to himself every time he thought of the scene; Joris floundering in the mud water, bedraggled and cursing like a sailor, a lily pad and some long blades of soggy grass stuck to his shoulder, his hand still trapped by the meters and meters of twine. It served him right for calling any of them thieves.
He was pretty certain that along with everyone else, his Papa also knew who had done this to Joris, since the three of them had stood on the opposite bank for all to see, and laughed their fool heads off at him, standing up to his waist in water, with the twine still wrapped around his hand. But he knew even Papa took exception to Johannes being called a thief.
In October the wind already had a hint of the cold, damp winter to come, as it blew over the flatlands. Johannes was growing quickly now. He’d sprouted up a little and would be turning nine soon. He wished sometimes he lived like some of those rich city kids, who’d get fancy parties and expensive presents.
Vader was a tuinbouwer, a farmer, and they lived simple lives. Luxuries like parties and presents wrapped in fancy paper and ribbons were not part of their world. There would be felicitations from everyone, of course, and he would be made to feel a little special, perhaps even at school. There would even be a small present, like some pencils and maybe some nice drawing paper to go with them, from Papa, or perhaps a warm pair of knit gloves that Mama had made especially for him. He thought hard about what he could possibly get his Mama, whose birthday was close to his, excited to surprise her with something.
And while most birthdays were met with at least a little joyous welcome, Elisabeth’s approaching fortieth, held a little trepidation for her. Dutch custom was, that when a woman turned forty, she was officially old, and needed to dress in black. Elisabeth hated black, and she didn’t feel old. Not in the least. The few dresses she had were brown and a deep purple. She determined that on her fortieth birthday she would wear the deep purple, come hell or high water.
In the week before Elisabeth’s fortieth birthday, her mother came calling in the afternoon, and sat with her daughter at the dining table, sipping her tea. “Do you have your dress ready yet, Betje?”
“My dress? What do you mean?” Elisabeth knew exactly what her mother meant, but she decided to let her spell it out.
“You’ll be turning forty next week. You should properly be wearing the black then. You know this!” Her mother looked at her sternly.
“Oh, that dress.” Elisabeth picked up her tea and took a sip, looking at Johannes, sitting across from them at the other end of the table, working on a sketch. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back, curious to see what he’d been drawing, and proud of him that he could make a decent looking piece of art. Casually looking into her tea, she said, “Yes, well … I don’t plan on wearing black at forty. I don’t feel old yet!”
Her mother put her cup down, clinking it heavily against the saucer as she set the tea down on the table in irritation. “So you say! But no proper woman dresses in colours after forty. It’s not done, Elisabeth! What will people think?”
“Mother, I really don’t care what people think! I don’t feel old, and I refuse to wear something that makes me look as if I’m in perpetual mourning! I won’t! I hate black!
“Oh, Elisabeth! I raised you to be a proper and sober huisvrouw. Do you have to put me to shame like that?”
“I have a nice burgundy dress and a dark brown one. Those should be good enough! I think they’re dark enough for me to look fatsoenlijk! “Don’t worry Mother, I’ll look proper,” she sighed cynically, “I won’t be putting you to shame, and wear flashy colours to be mistaken for a flighty eighteen-year-old!”
“Don’t you sass me, Elisabeth!” her mother continued to harangue her daughter, but Elisabeth held fast. There would be no black after forty. Listening to all this, Johannes silently agreed. He’d seen enough sour old women at the markets and in church, looking for all the world as if they were part of some ritual mourning assembly at a funeral.
He would have been cuffed across the head by his grandmother if he’d voiced his opinion on the matter, but deep down, his heart swelled with pride at his mother’s stand against the dubious practice, that turned women old before their time. He snorted inwardly. Even a stomme kind like him knew that much. He made a promise to himself, that his future wife would never have to wear black after forty. Even if she wanted to.
That evening, at dinner Elisabeth recounted the conversation to her husband, and reiterated, “I will not wear black when I turn forty! Do you hear me, Jacob? Do not try to make me. I’ll fight you tooth and nail!” Jacob wisely held his tongue. He’d had enough of his dealings with people of different viewpoints and wasn’t about to add any more unnecessarily.
The mindset of Johannes had turned to artistic dreams, once people began telling him he had a talent, but his father, Jacob had more practical ideas. After all, he thought, no man could make a living drawing pretty pictures.
“An artist? How would you be able to support yourself, let alone a family by selling that?” Jacob exclaimed when the boy began expressing his dreams to his father. They were in the fields, working.
“I could do better pictures!” he declared. “In school, I learned about some of the famous artists, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and the kind of work they did with oil paint! I want to do that!” Joh countered.
His father only laughed, “Van Gogh died poor, and he committed suicide! Rembrandt? That was so long ago, and it was a whole different time back then. Besides, oil paint? Lessons? And for what? So you can make pretty pictures? Nee, yongen, you have to be a little more practical. Put the dreams away. Life is hard now and you’d best get used to it!”
Joh ended that day discouraged but determined. God, he felt, had given him this talent to use for something. Some way and some day he would make it work for him.
“Come on boys, finish your breakfast! It’s time to get to work!” Jacob barked at his sons to get moving. “Those potatoes aren’t going to dig themselves up!” There was always work to be done in the fields, and today was no different.
Piet, the oldest, and Simon, Johannes’ next-younger brother got up from the table, hurriedly wiping their mouths on their sleeves as they stood. Fourteen-year-old Johannes stuffed the last of his bread into his mouth and followed suit. His father was not to be trifled with. A belt could appear in his hands for any of them, even at that age.
The day was hot and fluffed clouds scudded across the sky, as only clouds over a flat country could do. The wind seemed to blow all the time, either from the North Sea or from the mysterious lands to the east. By the time the group got to the first of the fields to begin work, Joh was already hungry again. There never seemed to be enough. Mother had delivered her eleventh child a short two years ago and there seemed to be even less than before, even though the girl ate very little.
Johannes sneezed again and dug morosely at the potatoes, plunking them into the sack that hung from his shoulders. He seemed to be congested and sneezing a lot as he worked on the land. Another annoyance to be tolerated.
Suddenly, along with a muddy clump of tubers that he’d just dug up, an odd flash of cream showed through the dirt at the end of his shovel. Curious, he reached over and picked up the lump and brushed off the soil. A small face stared back at him.
Johannes didn’t own very much, and this small piece of art looked priceless to him. The face was perfectly formed, and looked almost life-like. As he stared at it, it stirred an oddly familiar feeling in his gut, but he didn’t know why and set the feeling aside.