December 15, 2016

The Street Artist [1510 words]

A warm wind carries the scents of June and of river water. I take a smaller brush and switch from carmine to vermillion.

The flames engulf Hougoumont.

Japanese tourists are swarming all around me – they’ve stopped to photograph the river and the boulevard. Some pause by the rack that holds my finished pictures. A short elderly man inquires in English about the price.

“Ten euros,” I answer. “It’s written on the card.”

The Japanese man hesitates, then reaches for his wallet. He counts out the money and leaves with the ruins of bombed Cologne – the blackened shell of a railway station, all twisted iron supports and rubble, with the twin spires of the famous cathedral looming darkly in the background.

I look at my sheet of cardboard, then at the palette. With a critical eye, I assess the colors – brown, orange and red.

The fire should be brighter. I remember well how bright it was. The farmhouse and the surrounding trees were all aflame, and cannons thundered without a pause. I remember it all.

Using short, nonchalant brushstrokes, I cover the clouds with ruddy reflections of the blaze.

Before me stretches a postcard-perfect view – white houses with the characteristic crisscrossing pattern of black timber framing. Behind them, the sky is blindingly blue and the river glitters lazily in the sun. A little ship passes by, filled with tourists. Swans preen their feathers near an ice-cream booth. On a small square, in the shadow of several willow trees, café tables have been set out in the open air. People talk and laugh over their ice cream, coffee and soft drinks.

The sun is so bright it hurts my eyes; I slide my hat lower to shade them.

I rinse my brush. After some thought, I squeeze more orange paint onto my palette and resume work.

* * *

Am I English, you ask? Well, not exactly. I’m from Wales. And you’re from Holland; I don’t even need to ask, the flag is on your badge, next to your name.

Petra Koopmans. An ugly name. It makes me think of a stocky peasant woman in clogs. But you’re pretty, little Petra. Twelve years old, thirteen perhaps, with a blond ponytail, a precocious smile and bright, inquisitive eyes.

On the boulevard, more teenagers are milling, all wearing the same badges with a blue-and-yellow background. A group trip; from a school exchange program, perhaps.

Yes, I paint pictures for a living. A profession like any other.

Yes, all these pictures are mine.

And this? This is Waterloo.

Step back and all these orange and yellow splotches will form the outline of the burning Château d’Hougoumont.

I was there, you know. I remember the thundering cannons and the yelling cuirassiers amidst clouds of smoke. I remember the French might have won, but they ran out of luck before that long day ended.

You smile with sudden understanding and pity, and then ask if you can get me anything. A sandwich? A piece of cake, perhaps?

Buy a picture, I reply with a wink.

Do I have a place to live? Yes, of course, I say and you immediately look relieved, even slightly embarrassed that you’ve asked such a silly question. I don’t look like a homeless man. Why should I? At night, one can easily wash in one of the city’s many fountains, and there are many laundromats in the suburbs.


An olive-skinned woman in a blue T-shirt with a circle of twelve yellow stars calls your name sharply, clearly not happy that you’re talking to me. You cast a last glance on my pictures and run over to her.

* * *

The sun is setting, bathing the sky and river in a warm Titian glow.

In the small square, shadows deepen. From open restaurant doors flows the murmur of conversations, laughter, the clink of cutlery. Young Turkish men are standing in front of the closed ice cream booth, smoking cigarettes.

Soon it will be time for me to pack and leave, but not yet. The evening is warm and the boulevard is filled with tourists enjoying a leisurely stroll.

Not ten minutes later, two men and a girl stop to look at my rack of pictures. They exchange some comments, and I recognize their language – they’re Poles.

One of the men, tall and balding, tries to ask me a question in very bad French. He throws in a few English words, so I answer in the same language, and the girl promptly joins in the conversation. Her English is nearly perfect, with barely a hint of a foreign accent. She has high, Slavic cheekbones and long fair hair.

Yes, that’s Warsaw. In nineteen forty-four, all ruins, burnt and blackened.

And this is Leningrad under siege, the ruined Nevsky Prospect. A red glow from distant explosions stains the snow.

After some hesitation, the fair-haired Polish girl buys Leningrad.

I slip the coins into my pocket as they walk away. Suddenly I raise my head, recognizing your voice.

You’re walking back along the boulevard, together with the rest of your group: laughing kids from different countries, escorted by counselors in blue T-shirts with a circle of twelve yellow stars.

They all turn into a street that leads back to the city center, but you come up to me. Without a word, you quickly leave a paper bag on the low brick wall behind my picture rack; then you run off to catch up with your friends.

I take a look inside. The bag contains a sandwich – a bun with ham, tomato and mayonnaise – and a large portion of French fries.

“Hey, Gaston!” I call out softly.

An elderly drunkard sleeping on a nearby bench, clad in dirty, threadbare clothes, opens his eyes. Hearing his name again, he gets up, greasy strands of grey hair falling over his face, and limps over to me.

I ask him if he wants some supper. He nods and takes the bag without so much as a thank you.

* * *

In an alley behind the cathedral is a restaurant, one of many. I can smell pan-fried shredded potatoes – roesti, the Germans call them – and gravy-laden meat.

Purple petunias bloom in little wooden boxes that hang under the beer garden’s railing. The day’s menu is written in chalk on a decorative stand-up board.

I’ve never been a fan of the heavy Alsatian cuisine.

Behind the building, in the narrow space between the walls of two other half-timbered houses dating from the 16th century or so, the ground is strewn with paper, plastic bags and rotting bits of food. I listen for a moment and soon enough, I hear rustling.

A well-fed rat is sniffing through the refuse. It begins to nibble on a piece of baguette.

I whisper a word and the animal freezes in place. I grab it and break its neck, then sink my teeth in and greedily drink the warm blood. I rip open its belly and discard the guts; afterwards, I eat the raw pink meat and crunch the delicate bones between my teeth, savoring the marrow.

* * *

Ice cream wrappers and cigarette butts litter the cathedral’s observation deck, closed to visitors at this hour. Below, a sea of roofs slowly falls prey to the deepening dusk. My old friend the full moon smiles his silver smile, sailing among the clouds.

Hunger gnaws at my insides. I lean against the railing, letting the wind play with my hair.

I remember Waterloo. I also remember many other places and dates. Fog at Ypres, reeking of chlorine gas. The corpse-choked marshes of Passchendaele. Burning London suburbs, wreathed in thick black smoke, bombed by the Germans during the Battle of Britain in nineteen-forty. And, a hundred and fifty years earlier, the screaming mobs and the guillotine’s heavy thud on a Parisian square.

Below, Strasbourg pulsates with the quiet hum of cars, the muffled sounds of evening life. I harbor no illusions, Petra. One day – you will be an old woman then, perhaps, or perhaps not – history will repeat itself and Strasbourg, too, will burn: houses, cathedral and all. And afterwards, on some other boulevard, I will paint a picture and give it a title.

I’m an artist. I’ve been an artist for several centuries. A profession like any other.

And by night, I hunt. Usually outside the city; it’s safer. I also change my hunting grounds fairly frequently. Traveling across Europe means there’s less of a chance that the police will ever get on my trail.

Now and then, I recognize some girl’s face on a missing person poster, but that’s all.

Nearby, the shrill call of a bird rings out. I recall the bluish veins under your pale skin and regret that I didn’t get the chance to sink my teeth into you, little Dutch girl. I wonder if you’d taste like milk? All French girls seem to have a tang of onions; or perhaps it’s just my imagination.

I spread my wings and soar with the wind, towards the clouds and the smiling moon.

No comments:

Post a Comment