Well, finally I’m back to writing Bouffon Stories. The first one in 2013 is based on this prompt by GaryCXJk:
This is a very open theme, as you can go in several directions, like, in a literary way (imitate Dutch literature in just a short story), or it could be a story that has a lot of Dutch culture references, even the writing style could be Dutch (as most Dutch novels have a distinct style of build-up). I don’t know. You can make it as obvious or as subtle as you want even. It’s a hard one, it will challenge your creativity, but it’s also a very open one, and I’m really curious as to what you could do with that.
Now, to be brutally honest… despite being Dutch, I hardly read any Dutch literature at all. So the option of imitating it in a short story is out the window, I’m afraid. Which leaves me with having a story take place in a typically Dutch setting, and I like to think I’m pretty good at that. At least I’m giving it a go, and I want to thank Gary for giving me an excuse to write some historical fiction.
A kestrel sits in the crown of a poplar tree, overlooking the fields below, where a farmer is mowing the grass with a scythe. The falcon takes off and follows a long, straight road, delineated by a patchwork blanket of fields and canals. In a nearby village, the bird finds a resting place on top of a clock tower. Looking down, it sees a small assembly of stalls, gathered around an old linden tree in a circle. Behind one of the stalls, Johannes de Backer is advertising his merchandise.
“Bread! Fresh bread!”
People would shuffle past his stand, some of them merely glancing, others touching his bread and tasting it. One or two would even buy it. Johannes just about made a living selling his bread, but that was about it, really.
Year in, year out, he would stand there at this little village market, selling his bread. Then one day, along came a man clad in silk and velvet, wearing a brocade vest. His cap was even lined with genuine gold thread.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” he said, standing in the middle of the village square, under the branches of the linden tree, but at the same time dwarfing it with his vainglorious attitude. “Good citizens of Honingerdam! Before you stands your new miller. That is correct, sir, there is nothing wrong with your hearing. Today I have signed a contract with the mayor, agreeing that I shall return the old mill to its former glory. This is good news for all you citizens because, ah… well, Honingerdam can become the main producer of products like… paint pigments? Do you have a famous local painter? No? Oh… well, you, sir!” the man said, approaching the baker.
“Who… me?” Johannes replied with a quivering voice.
“Yes, you. You’re a baker, aren’t you? I see you’re not selling all that much bread though… tell you what. In my years of experience as a miller, I have worked with plenty of bakers to increase their assortment of pastries on offer. What do you say, eh… um…?”
“Johannes. Johannes de Backer.”
“Pleased to meet you, Johannes. My name is Adriaen Moolenaer, by the way. In any case, apart from this undoubtedly wonderful bread you’re selling here, we could add things like, um, stroopwafels or appelflappen to your range of products. Well?”
“Stroopwafels, that’s it. And appelflappen. Never mind about that, I have the recipes right here in my big book of pastries. I’ll explain everything to you in detail. For now, just sign this piece of paper. Don’t worry,” Adriaen said, noticing the baker’s trepidation, “there’s not trickery here. We’ll split the profits fairly, fifty percent each.”
Johannes shrugged his shoulders, grabbed a pen and signed. Within months, Johannes and Adriaen were raking in the dough, as it were. The Honingerdammers were very fond of the new sweet delicatessen available at the local market, and were only too happy to indulge in them. After all, what’s better than, after a hard day’s work at the farm, to sit back and relax with a nice cup of tea and a syrupy waffle, or a rich, succulent apple beignet?
“Hm?” Johannes said, not having heard the miller enter.
“Speculaas, man, speculaas! That’s where it’s at.”
“I… don’t get it. What’s… speculaas?”
Adriaen sat down opposite his business companion. “I had a word with a friend from Haarlem the other day. He works in the harbour there, and he told me a VOC ship is coming in soon, carrying a very special load…”
“And? What’s that got to do with us?”
“I’ll tell you. I asked my friend to hold back some of the spices the ship is carrying. Pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, oh my! Just imagine, Johannes, us making cookies out of that! People’s taste buds will nigh on explode.”
“I don’t know… spicy cookies? Really? And what’s up with that name?”
“Oh,” said Adriaen, “that just came to me in a dream. People like quirky names. It’s good for marketing. Now, will you do it?”
“Hmm… it sounds like a bit of a risk.”
“Welcome to the world of entrepreneurship, Johannes! Doing business is all about taking risks. But if you sell well, you’ve got it made.”
Johannes looked into the kitchen, where his wife was busy grilling pork. He imagined how, if this all succeeded, they would soon be able to roast an entire pig, with a big, red, juicy apple in its mouth. And for dessert, Johannes would bake a cake, with raisins soaked in rum… His visions of culinary ecstasy pulled the words out of his throat. “Let’s do it.” He shook hands with Adriaen, and the Honingerdammer speculaaskoek was born.
It was a huge success. Pretty soon, the Molenaer & De Backer Company were selling their pastries nationwide. From Groningen to Maastricht, from Den Helder to Vlissingen, people were queuing up to get a bite of these fabulous new taste sensations. Johannes and Adriaen became filthily rich, they bought expensive clothes, ate fancy dinners, they even bought a pony trap to transport them from town to town. In other words, they lived the fast life. Until that fateful day.
“People of Honingerdam,” the mayor said to the assembly of villagers in the town square. “As you know, neighbouring villages have been dealing with that monster that swallows up everything, the friend that turns into a foe at the blink of an eye, the tool God used to punish people in Noah’s time, and He is using it again today: our beautiful town is in imminent danger of flooding.”
A murmur rose up from amongst the people.
“But there is one glimmer of hope, my dear, fellow citizens. The hoogheemraadschap have informed me that we can stop the water from reaching our town, if we again use our windmill for the purpose it once served: poldering.”
“Wait,” a voice in the small crowd said. It was Adriaen Moolenaer’s. “Does this mean what I think it means?”
“I’m afraid so,” the mayor replied. “I am asking you to voluntarily give up your windmill. I know we have all grown fond of your products, but…”
“Damn right we have! Who are these people anyway to tell us Honingerdam is flooding? Have you seen any water here? No. You just want the mill for yourself, so you can take over production. Fellow Honingerdammers! Do we just let that happen? We are our own masters, are we not?”
“Yes, we are!” many in the assembly shouted, although some remained silent, still fearing that perhaps their beloved village was about to be made a casualty of the nearby river.
“Perhaps,” the mayor said, “it is better to think this matter over. I suggest everyone return to their homes and think things through. I am sure that, after a night of earnest prayers, we will all see things more clearly.”
Reluctantly, the people shuffled off.
That night, Johannes sat at the kitchen table with his wife. A sole candle illuminated the room.
“Geertje,” he said to her, sighing deeply, “I don’t know what to do. I can see Adriaen’s point, that he doesn’t want to give up the company, and perhaps the hoogheemraadschap are wrong, perhaps there isn’t any need to use the windmill for poldering after all. But then again…”
Geertje laid her hands upon her husband’s. “What if it’s true?”
“Just think of all those lives that may be lost… all those innocent men, women, and…” she hesitated. “Children.”
“Oh, yes, I don’t want to have that on my conscience. But on the other hand, if I’m wrong about this… it would mean the end of the company, and then what? All our employees would be out of a job… we‘d be out of an income… and imagine if we ever got any children, how would we look after them?”
Geertje looked down. “Johannes… I… I think I am pregnant.”
Johannes’ eyes widened. “Oh… Geertje…” He rushed over to her, grabbed her hands and stooped to kiss them. Then, as if awoken from a dream, he suddenly looked up. “Of course this means we must continue our company. We have a family to support now!”
Geertje smiled. “No,” she said quietly. “Please, for the sake of the child… if we are in danger of getting flooded, we will all die. Give back the windmill to the hoogheemraadschap if you can, Johannes. I beg of you. We have managed before Adriaen came here with his spices, we will manage in the future. Even with the child. Give it a chance to be born, Johannes. Let go of the company.”
Johannes looked up at his wife through misty eyes. He nodded.
The following day, Johannes went out into the marketplace, where a group of about two dozen people had already gathered around a stall, behind which Adriaen stood selling his cookies, as if nothing had happened the day before.
“Adriaen,” Johannes said, walking towards the stall without paying attention to the people overhearing the conversation, “I’ve been thinking. We need to hand over the windmill, Adriaen. Honingerdam is more important than our company.”
“Hm?” said Adriaen, while handing a packet of stroopwafels to a customer.
“Adriean,” Johannes said, in a louder voice, emphasizing every word, “I’m leaving the company.”
“Really now? And who will give these fine people their cookies?”
“I’ll still be baking bread of course, but the flooding danger…”
“Flooding danger? All because some stupid mayor has been talking to a dijkgraaf who can’t tell his back from his front? Really now, Johannes…”
Johannes grabbed Adriaen by his shirt. “Now, listen…”
“No, you listen! You’re clearly not thinking straight. Let’s… let’s just talk about it later, okay? Say, at two, in the windmill?”
Johannes blew up his cheeks. He drew in a quick, angry breath and let it out again. “…all right.”
That afternoon, Johannes sat brooding at the kitchen table. His wife had gone out to the city to do some shopping, so he was left all alone with his feelings. No one to relieve the tension. No one to talk sense to him. Just Johannes and the vision of that upcoming meeting with Adriaen…
The hours had been crawling towards this moment. Five minutes to two. Johannes set out for the windmill, where he found Adriaen already waiting for him with a big, but not disarming, smile on his face. “Johannes… do come in.”
Adriaen walked up the steps to the top of the mill, with Johannes following silently behind him.
“Now, how about some fresh air?” Adriaen said, opening the door to the deck.
Johannes stepped outside, breathing in the cool air. He hoped it might cool his nerves, but it didn’t. “So,” he said. “What do you want?”
“My dear Johannes, I want nothing… nothing more than for us to continue our cooperation. It’s what the people want, Johannes. You know that.”
“The people… don’t always know what’s good for them. We can’t just let Honingerdam be washed away because we need this mill to make… damned cookies!”
“Honingerdam… is just one potential market of many. If it’s lost, we’ll find another mill. And there will be always plenty of customers. So there’s really no need to worry.”
Johannes opened and shut his mouth. “Do you… do you realize what you’re saying? You’re willing to sacrifice our village, just like that? Imagine how many innocent people would be killed in a flood!”
Adriaen Moolenaer burst out laughing. “Innocent people? Innocent? This rabble? Look, Johannes, no man is truly innocent. We all just follow the desires of our own heart. And rightly so, too. I intend to do the same thing. With or without you.”
“But Adriaen,” Johannes said, pleading, “my family… my wife is pregnant.”
“So? What do I care about that stupid cow? And how do you even know the child is yours, eh? A fine woman she is, Johannes, a fine woman indeed… too bad she hasn’t got the brains to match, otherwise I’d have kept her.”
In a blind rage, Johannes rushed forward, knocking over Adriaen, who grabbed hold of the railing of the windmill’s deck. His knuckles turned white as he held on to his life, as it was beaten out of him by the furious baker, who kept hitting him in the face.
“Johannes, please… stop…”
Eventually Johannes did stop. He came to himself, left Adriaen lying there, half dead, and went home. He sat down at the kitchen table, completely motionless. When his wife came in, he did not say one syllable to her.
A few hours later, the miller stoop up, his legs shaking and his head spinning. In his usual bravado, he tried to run before he could walk (or in this case, walk before he could crawl). A sudden attack of dizziness came over him, and he lost his balance. He fell over, over the edge, down onto the cobbled road below. In a few minutes he was dead.
The bailiff was sent out to investigate this suspicious death. Being a friend of Johannes, he was utterly perplexed to find the baker at his kitchen table, the blood stains on his shirt a silent witness to the manic punishment he had that day doled out to his business companion.
“Johannes…” said the bailiff, “what happened? Are you… did you…”
Johannes did not speak, no matter how his friend tried to encourage him to prove his innocence, if such a thing was at all possible given the circumstances. In the end, he threw up his hands, having no choice but to arrest his old friend. It was decided that Johannes de Backer had killed Adriaen Moolenaer, for which crime he should be hanged.
Three days later, Geertje looked on as her husband was condemned to the hangman’s rope, in front of that fateful windmill that was now doing its duty as a poldering mill for the hoogheemraadschap.
* * *
It was now three centuries later. The Honingerdam town council was in session. One of the councillors, a certain Thijs de Bakker, just submitted a proposal to erect a statue in honour of Johannes de Backer, who, in an unusual act of bravery, had rescued Honingerdam from destruction by water. “If it hadn’t been for him,” De Bakker said, “we would not be here today. The river would surely have washed away our town after a few days.”
“Yes, that is certainly true,” one of the other councillors agreed. Several of them nodded their approval.
“But,” said another, “should we really honour a convicted criminal, a murderer no less, with a statue in the village square?”
One of the alderwomen, Maria Molenaar, now stood up. “My fellow Honingerdammers. I think we can all agree with Thijs de Bakker’s sentiment. This Johannes de Backer, this noble baker, made a great sacrifice for the ultimate good for our village. There is no denying that if that mill had not been utilized for poldering, Honingerdam would not exist today. However, this presents us with a great dilemma. For our beautiful town is now one of the most picaresque villages in the country, and hundreds of tourists are flocking to it every year to admire its rustic beauty. I wonder, then… should we burden those people with a diabolical ethical question? Because, know this, if we put up a statue in Johannes de Backer’s honour, people will ask questions. ‘Why a statue of a murderer in a village that is otherwise almost devoid of sculptures?’ they would ask. Yes, perhaps some of them would look up what really happened in the archives, but even then, how do they know it’s the truth? How do we know the truth? Was Johannes truly guilty, or truly innocent? Was Adriaen Moolenaer, who put our town on the world map as a leading producer of confectionery, wholly to blame for his stubbornness? Are we not all to some degree both innocent and guilty? Are we not?”
After a few moments of pensive silence, the motion was brought to vote. The votes against the proposal won out by a majority of two. Reluctantly, the mayor slammed his gavel to seal the affair.
Afterwards, the mayor took a walk out in the countryside. He thought about life, about the big questions that have the power to tear our hearts in two.
Up above, he sees a kestrel. He follows its movements for a while, until it lands on the roof of the church tower. He bends down, and picks up a few wild flowers. Upon his return to the village, he halts before the windmill. He kneels, places the flowers at the foot of the mill, and looks up. Overhead, two kestrels are circling the mill, looking down at the mayor, who looks up at them with a glint in his eye, thinking himself lucky that he lives in the present, and not three centuries ago.