Francesca Birlogeanu: The Important Work
Eighteen young Flemish and Dutch authors have taken inspiration from seventeenth-century artefacts from the Rijksmuseum. Looking at these objects, what eureka moments do they see? Francesca Birlogeanu wrote a short story in response to Hendrick Avercamp’s painting Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters. ‘I want to hide in the curls of your letters’
Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Ice Skater, ca. 1608 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The Important Work
In summer we carry our previous footsteps with us, stuck to our soles, the soil, the dead grass, the gravel between our toes: I can tell which path you chose on your way home, the one along the river (you smell faintly of sulphur) or the one along the main road (I see twigs sticking out of your clogs). In winter we leave them behind, always choosing the same paths: the tips of our winter shoes wear thin, the sledge scores the same lines, deep creases in the ice, dirty white like Uncle Hendrik’s beard. According to our mother he gets into bed with a succubus at night.
In the evening we sit around the table on our uncomfortable chairs. You prod me with your woollen socks, the candle wobbles between us, but leans more towards you: you’re doing the important work. It’s my job to locate the holes in your trousers, feel them with my fingers, until the cold night threatens to slip in through the window. Then you’ll blow out the candle and say: ‘Leave it, Anneke, tomorrow is another day.’
Winter turns into a small ice age, the horizon ever higher, we fear that night will cover us like a frozen blanket, the two of us, cosy together, immortalised in a glacier. The many feet of snow smother the fields. The sun hides behind the grey clouds like I used to hide behind our mother’s skirts.
Friday. Market day. The slivers of sun caress the snow-covered stalls. You knot my scarf for me, a barricade against the icy wind. With my nose just about poking out, I can already feel the snotsicles forming. I keep the wood in a stranglehold. Now and again you look over your shoulder to see if I’m still on the sledge. Then you carry on pulling, grumbling, ignoring the horse carcass we keep passing on the way back. Each time fewer and fewer crows are pecking away at it, until they too stop paying attention.
You do the important work. Uncle Robert is teaching you to write and is very proud of your progress. I want to hide in the curls of your letters; they’re so much mightier than my sounds. I talk a lot, but when I fall ill, my words are reduced to nothing.
Torches. Dozens of torches loom in the dark. Men shouting, horses’ hooves on the ice, interrupted by howling gusts of wind. Together we mutter the protestant prayers that Uncle Hendrik taught you, a final act of resistance. They knock on the door, I hear the wood splinter, they charge, stomp up the stairs, destroying the house in their haste, their rage. I close my eyes, picture the market. You touching my red nose with your red mitten. I think of the hollow you leave behind, your blood still warm on the frozen blanket. Now I have a place to crawl into, like a rabbit, under layers, layers, layers of snow.