I remember i only wanted to sail with my uncle on his canal boat. I couldn’t have imagined that before the ten day trip was over, I would never want to go again. And for no real reasons, no reasons I could tell my parents, none I could actually explain to myself. I didn’t know, however, that old Doede and his wife Sibbeltje were going to be waiting on the canal side, out in the fields, after the evening bells had summoned everybody else home. And I couldn’t have thought of Tjerk who had sailed away on a lugger in April, and of Engeltje, whom he should have married in April, even though she was telling the townfolk now that April was too early a month for any wedding. I only wanted to go on the canal boat. Much later it seemed as if all that happened simply came about because that evening in the fields was ready for such things, brewed such things, and that the bells had aided. It wasn’t that either, exactly.
Everything started innocently enough. I was eleven that summer. It was July, the willows were heavy, the canals full, the fields lush; there was peace in Holland. It was an abundant summer; even the clouds seemed more bountiful and the storks on the roof-tops more plentiful than we had ever remembered. Wierum, our town, was silent and sleepy; all the fishermen were at sea, the landworkers and women were in the fields, there was even no noise and shouting of children. Only the gulls were shrill when the tide sidled toward the dike.
For months I had laid siege to my parents’ patience to get their permission to spend the vacation with my uncle. They remained adamant, however. A canal boat, even if it weren’t a despicable houseboat, was no place for such as me. It was pity enough aunt had chosen to marry a man who owned a canal boat, and it was her just reward that she had to spend all her living days on that boat, and raise her children there. Good, substantial citizens didn’t do that. I knew all their arguments, but I also had patience.
Then the unexpected happened. Weeks before the usual summer vacation which was always terminated by the school-feast for Queen Wilhelmina, someone somehow decreed that our school had to be painted, even if that would call for a second vacation just before the queen’s birthday, during which the classrooms could be decorated with spruce branches, paper roses, and Japanese lanterns. A vacation was suddenly there; something had to be done immediately with all of us children. I was given permission to sail with my uncle, who was leaving the next day for the fens in the deep center of Friesland with a load of early potatoes; to return, whenever winds were favorable, with a load of peat.
I rose early in the morning while the sheep were still huddled in sleep against the landside of the dike, and the sky was slowly turning from a wistaria color to pearl blue. The land workers had already flocked out of town for the early morning shift, from which the eight o’clock bell would summon them back to town for breakfast of potatoes and fish. An hour and a half later, they’d return to the fields again for the second shift. It seemed exceedingly early and quiet. The air was saturated with the scents of blooming flax, clover, and the pink flowers along the canal sides we called pentecost flowers. The salty smell of the sea spiced everything.
My mother accompanied me to the boat. But before we crossed the gangplank, my aunt emerged from the boat’s loft, pushing the brass-studded door open above her head with her strong bare arms. And even before she said good morning, she pointed at my leather shoes and said sternly to mother: “You ought to know he can’t wear those on the ship. Why, he’d scratch and dirty up everything.” Mother remained silent for a moment, then she said firmly to me: “Run home and get your wooden shoes and your heavy socks,” but turning to my aunt, who was her elder sister, she added: “My boys never wear wooden shoes in summer, but —” Suddenly she shouted after me: “Get your Sunday sabots, do you hear?” I realized she had scored a point over my aunt. If I had to wear wooden shoes, they’d be the Sunday ones, the black painted ones with their silver leaves and buds.
When I returned thudding on my wooden shoes and sup-plied with extra socks, the sky had turned deep blue, some of the sheep shuddered slowly to rising, and even the shiftless houseboat dwellers on the other side of the canal seemed to be astir. Before I crossed the gangplank, however, I took off my shoes, and stepped aboard on stocking-feet. My aunt nodded approvingly. “And now come in and have some tea,” she said to mother.
We sat in the little cabin with its maroon varnished woodwork, its brass knobs and handles, its canary, geraniums, and plump cat, and high aloft its narrow windows with the bright red curtains. Mother and aunt talked. It was going to be wonderful to be there, for ten days, to sleep behind the maroon varnished wainscoting, behind which were the bunks, like a series of low ovens, each with its special green taffeta curtain. I’d sleep above my cousin Jan, below my cousin Grietje, while across the cabin in a larger and deeper bunk slept my uncle and aunt, just above the cubicle which held the provisions. I knew that much, I needed only to discover where Sjoerd, the old hired sailor, slept; no doubt in the hold, which occupied the back seven-eighths of the ship, now filled with potatoes.
Mother and aunt talked, the canary shrilled a few nervous notes when the first of the sun struck the geraniums in front of the eastern window, and the cat scampered up when my cousins entered with the groceries. Life was ready to begin, as soon as mother was done gossiping, as soon as cousin Jan, three years older than I and wearing his first long brown suede pants, deigned to start talking to me, and as soon as cousin Grietje, who was my own age, had had her cup of tea with rock-candy. But within fifteen minutes all that had happened. Mother was gone and Jan was showing me gravely, with a bearing befitting one wearing long pants, the details of the ship, while Grietje followed distantly and a little disdainfully.
The sun had lifted itself just above Nijkerk’s tower when we maneuvered slowly down the canal, trying to find clear passage between the square unwieldy houseboats on one side and the regular canal boats on the other. When we were past the confines allotted to the houseboat dwellers by the town, uncle and Sjoerd raised the sail, and suddenly a capricious wind pushed us swiftly toward the sun over the wide canal, along which the cows slowly lifted curious faces and watched us.
We were sailing; not upon water it seemed, but over level lands in blue-green, past drooping willows, past slowly creaking windmills, almost as if we’d gradually take wing, to rise above blue flax fields, yellow fields of kohlrabi, above all the black and white cattle, even above all the thirty-odd towns with their red roofs and single towers we could count from the deck, and far above the workers in the fields who rose from their stooping and waved when we passed. We skimmed along the canals which were somehow not water, but long bars of sky dropped between the low fields. We sailed. Grietje and I sat on the deck, both in stocking feet, both rubbing the soles of our socks gently over the burnished brass railing. Jan was at the rudder and aunt stood with her sleeves rolled high, looking at the sky. I knew that was beauty, simple beauty, not yet filled with the melancholy which came at evenings.
It was evening, ten days later, when we returned. Over the fields Wierum was visible, huddled peacefully in the crook of the long green dike, on the top of which sheep stood still as if they were waiting for something to rise out of the sea. Had there been any wind, we would have reached town in thirty minutes. But in this stillness, in which the sail hung limp and without a quiver, we might not get there before morning. I hadn’t longed for home before, but with Wierum’s old stumped tower in sight, I yearned. Jan and Grietje, sitting beside me, seemed to yearn, too. At least in their blue eyes I saw reflected still country and mighty skies with huge clouds which also seemed to be waiting for something. And later, after we had heard about Tjerk and Engeltje and what had happened to them, I was certain that the whole earth had actually waited.
At that moment, however, it was sheer melancholy which grew more and more unwordable, when the storks rose with slow quavering wing-beats from the ditches, and when the frogs grew silent as the boat edged inch by inch toward them. “We’ll never get there,” my uncle said, studying the watch in the palm of his hand. “It’s almost six o’clock.” From the rudder old Sjoerd turned his bearded face slowly and grumbled, “No.” Then he turned his eyes toward the distant dike again on which one sheep had suddenly started walking and tens of others followed slowly as if they were attached by long invisible strings. Then we heard the moaning of the sea, and saw the first gulls swoop over the dike, so distant they seemed only flecks of white. Sjoerd said: “The tide’s coming.”
From the open loft my aunt nodded, and uncle put the watch back in his trousers pocket and said again: “Almost six o’clock.” It seemed that after that we merely waited, first for the bells to ring at six, after that for anything that might come. Yet an enormous, faintly golden cloud was slowly sliding toward the sun before we noticed that it moved at all. No one spoke for a long time, so that when a flock of ducks whirred up from the rushes, we were all startled. Then we waited for the bells.
For days, in the fens and among strange pastures in the interior of the province we had listened to strange bells, summoning strange people from their fields. Now we were going to listen to the bells we knew, from all the towers of the thirty towns we could see around us. We knew most of them by their sound. Hantum’s would come first, shrill and nervous; then Niawier’s, hoarse, almost breathless; next Ternaard’s; then Nes’s; then mightily our own bell, from Wierum’s old tower, the oldest of them all, with the heaviest, saddest voice. After that they’d all sound at once, a confusion of bells. We’d be in the midst of them. We waited.
The minutes were slow, but Sjoerd had already turned his face toward Hantum’s tower, and aunt had emerged entirely from the loft, and uncle felt for his watch again. Then, as if they were making way for the bells, storks rose everywhere from hidden ditches and winged slowly toward the towns; a lark shrilled a quick evening song and fell, and a sleek water rat crossed the canal directly in front of the boat. A little wind came and tugged at the pentecost flowers on the bank, rippled the sail, fingered aunt’s hair, quivered briefly on the water, and was done. The boat slid a little faster and subsided. The large cloud had reached the sun, and Grietje pointed to the high roof of Antema State, red above green trees.
Then the first bell sounded, not Hantum’s, but Metsla-wier’s, almost as if it apologized for its haste. The others came, and the seventh was our bell, steady, male-voiced, not at all tentative, but surer than all the others. Already all around us the workers in the fields had straightened from their work, stood tying bonnets and buttoning jackets, waved at us and started walking. We heard their voices, a nether-sound to the bells. We sat still. At the stern Sjoerd turned and smiled a little, and my aunt smiled and then Jan and Grietje smiled. The storks were flying high, slowly, patiently. From everywhere people flocked to the roads which ribboned yellowly to all the towns.
We watched them go, black troops of people, preceded by green farm wagons and straining horses. We saw the groups separate, each heading for its own village. And when the bells ceased, except Aalsum’s very faraway, tardy bell, we heard the horses’ hoofs thud on the bridges and heard the rumble of the wagons. The storks were out of sight, each already in its own town, on its own roof-top. The voices of people came clearer: short chimes of laughter, shouting at horses, and young voices, swift and boisterous, It was good; this was peace, and for the moment it didn’t matter that the boat lay practically still. So still the frogs didn’t even stop their croaking. The sun had burrowed itself completely in the big cloud.
A hundred yards ahead was the white bridge, stark against the sky’s blue, silent now after the wagons had rolled over it and the wooden shoes had thudded across it. We’d have to lower sail and mast for that bridge, but at the rate we went we wouldn’t reach it for half an hour. The sail was of no use, however. Sjoerd started to lower it. Grietje, Jan, and I looked up when sudden footsteps clattered across the white bridge and saw a young fellow in blue jacket trying to catch up with the others far ahead of him. But before he had crossed the bridge, he stopped and waved at us. We waved and he hurried on. Sjoerd was lowering the sails. Not till then did we see the man and woman waiting for us on the opposite bank of the canal, though uncle was already lifting his hand in greeting.
The man and woman waited silently and didn’t lift their hands. Jan had gone to the rudder and was steering the boat to the opposite side of the canal. Uncle helped Sjoerd to lower the mast, and Grietje and I sat still, until aunt turned to us and said: “They have something to tell us.” We nodded, and then I recognized the old couple as Doede and Sibbeltje, who had a little plot of their own along the canal, and who didn’t need to leave when the bells rang if they didn’t want to. But they had tidings now—even I could see that.
Slowly Sibbeltje unhooked her old, gray, mud-stained work skirt and stepped out of it. Then she waited again in her clean blue lower skirt, while the boat careened slowly toward them. The mast was down and Sjoerd had started pushing off on the other bank. Very slowly the boat sidled toward the old couple, and aunt shouted: “Good evening, folks.”
They nodded in reply. Uncle put the gangplank out, and while Sibbeltje folded her work skirt and laid it on the grass and stepped out of her wooden shoes, her husband said: “We have tidings. We saw your sail, and we thought perhaps you hadn’t heard. So we waited to tell you before you hear the bell, and start wondering.”
Sibbeltje bobbed her head vehemently. “Yes,” she said, and pointed at Ternaard and its tower. Then when Doede had removed his shoes also, she followed him on stocking-feet over the plank.
“Did someone die?” uncle asked.
The old couple nodded.
“Come and have some tea,” aunt said. “It’s late for tea, but I still have some steeping. We thought we’d reach town by coffee time, but I’m afraid we won’t.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Sibbeltje said solemnly, as if our reaching town had been prevented by whoever had died. We waited to hear the news, but the formality of tea preceded everything. Aunt ordered Grietje to bring the tea from the cabin. I realized they’d have tea on deck, perhaps only because Doede and Sibbeltje looked rather dirty and might soil the immaculate cabin. But Grietje waited to learn who was dead before she got the tea things, in spite of her mother’s scowling. Even Sjoerd had come closer.
Sibbeltje spread her blue skirt around her and sat down, and Doede sat down beside her. Then Sibbeltje said: “Yes, we saw your sail, and I said to Doede somebody ought to tell them. What with it being ten days when we saw you sail away. Perhaps it was in the newspapers, but maybe you did not see them.” She stopped and rubbed her feet together.
“Who is it?” uncle asked.
Slowly Doede shook his head: “And we thought that when you’d hear Ternaard’s bell, and you’d hear from it that somebody was dead, you’d think it strange to hear it at this time of the evening when there are no funerals. So we waited. It’s Tjerk Anema. Tjerk.” He stopped abruptly.
“Yes, Tjerk,” Sibbeltje said, staring hard at all of us in turn with cracked blue eyes, while she stroked her knees.
“Oh no,” aunt said. “Not him, that big and young . . .”
“Yes, him,” Sibbeltje said severely.
Then old Sjoerd said something we couldn’t understand and shuffled to the stern of the boat, where he sat listening, his eyes on the sky. Grietje, who had waited all this time, suddenly hurried inside. And aunt repeated: “Him, who’s that tall and handsome and young, him six feet and . . .”
“Yes, him,” Sibbeltje said again. “Him, alive day before yesterday, and the sea as calm as a glass bell, and no reason. But there the other men look at the water and they see Tjerk go down, down, with his heavy boots on, in clear water, so that they could see him sink, far. And when they got him again he was dead, and now his body is in Ternaard where the train brought it at half past five, but they delayed bringing it to Wierum till all the people were off the fields. But pretty soon you’ll hear the bell, when she brings him back home . . .”
She paused and looked cryptically at my aunt.
“She?” my aunt asked.
“Yes, she,” Sibbeltje answered grimly.
Even Sjoerd opened his mouth then. But without speaking he closed it again. And uncle looked at Jan as if he wished Jan were not there to hear this, and at that moment Grietje came up the steps with the tray. In the midst of that Ternaard’s bell started to toll, and aunt said once more: “Oh, no, no,” but everybody listened to the lugubrious bell, while Grietje put the tray down and deposited a string with rock candy in each saucer. Then she too straightened and listened to Ternaard’s bell.
It was the moment that I believed everything had been waiting for, all evening. The storks had flown away, the sun had hidden itself, the sheep had left the dike, there was no wind. Perhaps it was only the bell that made me feel that way. It was that sweet, woman-voiced, melancholy Tern-aard’s bell. It was the funeral toll: five dull thuds of the hammer against one side, then a louder reverberating clang against the bell’s other side. I knew how it was done. After a little while, when the body was crossing the white bridge into the precincts of Wierum, the big barmaid would already be in our tower, sitting in the loop of the heavy rope that tolled the bell. Then when someone high in the tower would shout the signal, she’d start to rock slowly, pushing off with her foot every fifth time, to get the loud, double clang. Now Ternaard’s woman-voiced bell seemed to say: “Heaven, earth, sea, and death.” But Wierum’s male-voiced bell would repeat stubbornly: “Dead, dead, dead, forever.” We all knew that. That was what the woman-bell said: distracted, in anguish; and what the man-bell announced: stubbornly, resigned and sad.
It was Ternaard’s bell that made me remember Tjerk. And I thought of how aunt had said that he was handsome, as if that made him impossible of death; and big, strong, and young, as if for that reason death couldn’t have anything to do with him. But the bell complained in its woman-voice. I remembered Tjerk standing on the dike-steps, his green stocking cap pushed back on the unruly yellow hair which was always full of sun, the knitted jacket open at the throat with the pompoon tassels dangling awry, and his hands plunged in the leather-like trousers. Of course, I also knew the “she” Sibbeltje had mentioned; the “she” who had gone after the body. I knew it was Engeltje, the woman Tjerk should have married before he sailed in April. I knew it at once, and not because of Grietje who had seated herself between Jan and me, and asked Jan: “Is it Engeltje?”
Jan nodded. Then we listened to the four older people, who were talking now in soft tones. Sibbeltje dipped her rock candy on its string in and out of the tea, and the sun which had left the big cloud was upon her. Uncle looked serious, aunt unbelieving, but Doede watched his wife’s lips as if he had to see her talk, while at the stern Sjoerd sat and nodded to himself. All the time the bell clanged. Then Jan rose and looked toward Ternaard, and Grietje and I looked also; the older people did not rise but merely watched our eyes.
We saw the wagon. We even saw the men in high black hats on the driver’s seat behind the roan horses. A large black cloth had been draped over the wagon so that none of the green was visible. Behind the wagon walked the woman in black. If it hadn’t been for the bell we would have heard the wagon. Soon it would rumble over the first bridge, then another, and then it would have to cross the white bridge in front of us. We sat down simultaneously, and the older people talked again. That dark wagon was like something remembered from the Bible, I thought. Then Sibbeltje raised her voice.
Stridently she said to aunt: “No, you can’t tell me. Not him, a healthy man, a big man. But what did she do? She says she didn’t marry him because he left early, six weeks early, and she refused to speed up the plans for the wedding. As if there were plans for a wedding. All I ask you is, why did he sign with another lugger, one that sailed much earlier? He wanted to get away, wanted to get away so badly he jumped in the sea, right there near Engelman’s plaat where nobody could stop him.” Angrily she pumped her string with rock candy in her almost empty cup. Then she added sharply: “And she the way she is . . . She . .
But my aunt, looking at us, said suddenly: “Grietje, run down and get some more tea.”
Sibbeltje chuckled grimly and shook her hand. “You needn’t send the girl away. I’m not going to say it. Besides, even little children know.” “You can’t say that, Sibbeltje,” Doede said placatingly.
“I can’t?” she shouted. “Oh, I can’t. As if it isn’t town property. As if anybody is too simple to see . . .”
Again my aunt interrupted: “Grietje, run down and get more tea.” For Grietje was sitting down again.
“Oh no, she needn’t,” Sibbeltje said tartly. “I’m not going to say it. Besides I need no more tea, nor does Doede. Let the girl sit.”
Grietje sat down again, and everybody was silent and listened to the bell and the sounds of the horses and wagon. It had crossed two bridges; next would be the white bridge and then Wierum’s bell would start tolling. So we sat still, waiting, watching the large slow clouds which were yellowing, hearing the frogs, seeing small birds at the canal’s side. In the still air hung the almost-leather smell of the tea. We didn’t rise again to see how close the wagon was. It wasn’t respectful to stand up and stare at death and mourning.
Sibbeltje was talking again, in a monotone, her hands at last quiet in her lap. She said: “Yes, maybe we shouldn’t judge her. I don’t know. He was no saint either, he wasn’t built to be, but he was a beautiful man and kind. And when a man like that jumps overboard, there is something deep. Much deeper than the sea.”
“Yes, yes,” Doede said, and uncle and aunt nodded.
“And so when the news came that the body was coming as far as Ternaard by train, what does she do? Something nobody but Engeltje would do. She goes to his house and tells his father and mother and brothers that she alone is going to get his body. That this is going to be her wedding. That she had no time to marry him in April, but that now the time is ripe. That they may only come as far as the drawbridge to meet him. But that she must be with him alone, all the way from Ternaard. And now, I suppose, those poor souls are waiting at the drawbridge.”
I know we shouldn’t have done it and aunt shook her head in consternation; but Grietje and I rose and looked toward the drawbridge which was down the river just outside of our town. We did see a small cluster of people there, black against the green. But Jan, who was almost a man, hadn’t risen. Sibbeltje looked at us and smiled a little, and then Grietje and I sat down again. The funeral wagon had almost reached the white bridge right in front of us.
We did not rise when we saw the horses. Like the older people we sat and looked quietly. We saw the roan horses strain momentarily up the slight incline toward the bridge, we saw the two high-hatted men lean forward a little, and then the horses thumped on the wooden bridge and the wagon rumbled over it. Then, as if she weren’t aware of the incline at all, came Engeltje, a few yards behind the wagon. She was all in black; there wasn’t a sign of the bright colors she always wore, or the beads or the gold; and over her golden hair she wore the black funeral cloth the town women always wore at funerals. She walked straight, without tiredness, though she had walked nearly a mile in her black wooden shoes and her short fisherwoman’s skirt. Neither she nor the men on the wagon looked aside. When the sound of the wagon and Engeltje’s shoes were no longer on the bridge, Wierum’s bell suddenly tolled, even before Ternaard’s was quite silent.
That bell did say: “Dead, dead, dead, forever,” with a strong unflagging voice, as if it could say it no other way from that old tower which had stood there a thousand years. It stirred the birds from the canal edges, and for a little while the frogs were still. Nobody spoke, until Sjoerd at the stern said: “Yes, it’s her wedding. And she walks, because if she’d go on the wagon she’d have to lie down dead beside him.”
I didn’t know what he meant. Perhaps none of us knew. No one even looked at him when he spoke, but each one looked at the land before him. Far off, the sheep were very white on the green dike. In a closer pasture three cows waded to the edge of the canal and stood there without drinking. The sun was bright on the weathercock of Hantum’s tower, and shone against the still wings of the old windmill. But the frogs croaked again.
Sibbeltje was rising, and Doede also rose.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to lay here for the night,” uncle said.
“It’s stiller here in God’s field than in the hearts of some people I’m thinking of,” Sibbeltje said.
“You mustn’t say that,” her husband scolded mildly. But I saw my aunt bob her head.
Then Sibbeltje and Doede went down the plank and put their wooden shoes on again. They said good evening and walked slowly away in the furrows. But when we were standing up to say goodby to them, we saw the funeral wagon draw closer to the drawbridge where the little clump of people waited, with the red-roofed town, the grey tower, and the bell behind them.
When Sibbeltje and Doede were out of sight, uncle and aunt descended to the cabin. Old Sjoerd sat still and smoked his clay pipe. Jan, Grietje, and I sat still listening. Suddenly I wanted to tell them that I wanted to go home. But I didn’t dare. I wanted to speak, but they were silent. Then the wagon rumbled over the drawbridge and we rose again and saw the little group of people follow the wagon, a little behind Engeltje. We waited. I yearned for home. I never wanted to be on a canal boat again, in the evening, underneath nothing but huge still sky, on flat silent land from which soon even the sun would depart.
I didn’t know exactly why. It wasn’t the bell, or death, or Tjerk, or Engeltje. Perhaps all, perhaps something of all. It wasn’t anything to be talked about. The sea moaned. And very suddenly the bell was still. There wasn’t even an echo or reverberation. It stopped so suddenly that for a little while the frogs were silent.
“They’ve brought the body to Engeltje’s house,” Grietje said, “because that’s on this end of town.” But Jan and I rose and stood beside each other and looked at the lonely dike. I knew I couldn’t explain to Jan, I could’t even tell him I wanted to go home. Jan who was three years older than I, and aloof. And I couldn’t walk home alone through the deserted fields, with all houses distant and remote, and walk over the road that wagon had just traveled. I couldn’t explain it to Jan, nor anyone. I looked at Wierum. Thin blue wisps of smoke ribboned from red chimneys. People were preparing evening meals, would soon be sitting down to eat. I turned and looked at Sjoerd. He nodded at me, as if he understood me; as if he knew what I didn’t exactly know myself.
But Jan beside me said: “I’m hungry.”