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THE FRENCH - ITALIAN ALPS, MAY 1552
Peter Bruegel was looking at his first mountain, a steep, rounded foothill at the edge of the Alps. He and his friend Martin de Vos had never seen anything like it.
"The land swoops right up into the air," said Bruegel. He was a tall young man with a high brow, a big nose, and alert clear gray eyes. "Just like it's supposed to."
"Like a great ocean wave," said de Vos. He leaned on his long staff, peering out from under the low brim of his hat. He had a snub nose and a cheerful smile. "It was worth coming all this way from Antwerp."
Do you notice how the mountain's flank tilts up towards us?" continued Bruegel. "It's like we're looking down at it from the sky. With everything spread out next to each other. All there for us to see." He stepped off the stony road into the green grass and held out his arms as if to embrace the landscape before him.
It was a rain-kissed afternoon in May. Puffy little clouds were scattered across the watery blue sky, some hanging so close to the ground that Bruegel could almost touch them. A small river ran beside the road, lit just now by a patch of sun. Slanting gray streaks of rain caressed the green mountain. Bruegel felt as if his heart were blooming.
"I have to draw this," he told de Vos. He shrugged the strap of his satchel from his shoulder, peeled off his skirted jerkin, and sat down cross-legged upon it. He found ink and pen and a bottle of water in his satchel, and pulled a sheet of paper out of a special flap in his jerkin's lining. All the while he was staring at the mountain. "It's quite unlike what we've seen in paintings back in the Low Lands, Martin. Different than what we've been taught. It's less contorted, more like a living thing. It's saying hello to me."
De Vos smiled and sat down to watch his friend begin making tiny brown ink marks on his paper. Rather than drawing a scene with long continuous outlines, Bruegel preferred to nibble away at the edges of things with an accumulation of dots and strokes. The progress was steady and surprisingly rapid.
Some other travelers passed by, distracting de Vos. This was a busy road, with any number of merchants moving their goods back and forth between Italy and Northern Europe. Beyond the little mountain before them was one of the few passes where a wagon could get through the Alps.
"I'll meet you at that monastery by the mountain's base," said de Vos, looking off down the road. "See it? I'll warrant we can find food and lodging there."
"Be sure and tell them that we're guild artists," said Bruegel. "Maybe we can make something for them instead of paying cash."
"They might want to own the drawing that you're doing right now," suggested de Vos. "It's off to a nice start, I'd say."
"The monks won't want a plain nature sketch," said Bruegel. "If I were to offer them this drawing, I'd need to add something Scriptural."
"Joseph and Mary on the way to Egypt," suggested de Vos. "The hermit St. Anthony. The repentant Mary Magdalene taking a piss."
"I'd like that," said Bruegel, smiling. He was known among his friends for his fondness of sketching people in their private moments. "But the monks are surely beyond such low concerns. I imagine they're educated men. Humanists, perhaps. I could add some Classical figures for them. Mercury and Psyche in the sky. Or Daedalus and Icarus."
"Well, in any case be sure to draw their monastery!" said de Vos. "But leave the figures for when you've found your patron."
"Good idea, Martin," said Bruegel. "Meanwhile, less of you and more of my pen and this mountain. They're talking to me."
"All I hear is the bells of the monks' cows," said de Vos, rising to his feet. "Fat cattle mean good cheese. Bread and cheese and ale and some dark-green mouse-ear lettuce. It's the season for radishes too! There's quite a few buildings over there beyond the monastery. It looks like a regular village. Maybe I'll find a young widow with a hungry eye." De Vos had little more experience with women than Bruegel, but he liked to talk big.
He stepped down to the river and splashed some water on his face. He scrambled back to the road, gave Bruegel a cheery wave, and walked off whistling. Bruegel continued to draw, sinking into a kind of conversation with the mountain.
Whenever Bruegel concentrated on objects they seemed to talk to him. The quill pen told him how stiff it was and how it loved to be dipped in ink. Its squeaks were as the faint honks of a goose. The sepia ink spoke of the squid and cuttlefish sacks it came from, of water and writhing tentacles. The paper stretched itself out like a dog in the sun; it sighed with satisfaction at being scratched.
Most of all, though, it was the mountain that spoke to Bruegel.
"I'm alive too," the great mound said. "I move slower than you, but yes, I roll and turn within my sweet green skin. See the cleft at my top? Like the tip of your prick. I leak a stream from there and it's of a marvelous purity, refined by my mineral body. Be sure to sketch in the rim of my stream's gully, Peter. I used to be much taller than the younger mountains beyond me, so make me the highest thing in your picture. I'm old and wise, but on this summer day I feel young. The trees on my flanks are feathered with leaves that shelter all manner of birds, beasts, and men. I'm glad that you're drawing me. Yes, I have a dent halfway up, so shade it dark like that, good, and right before the ridge I'm a bit flat, so the bumps you make for trees should be closer together there. Fine. Leave the paper blank where the sun's very bright upon me, that's perfect. And now fill in that tangle of trees that march up my gorge--I'm lovely in there, Peter, you should walk up onto me and see."
After an hour of this, the pleasant mountain had been well depicted. Now Bruegel drew the monastery as well. It had a tidy Gothic chapel, a stone refectory, and a long two-storied wooden residence house with a red tile roof. Just like the mountain, the building spoke to Bruegel as he sketched it, talking about right angles and perspective, about monkishness, and about the joy of having windows. And then the sketch was done.
Bruegel sighed and stretched, got to his feet, and looked down at his new drawing, its corners weighted down by little stones. The sun was low in the sky behind him, glazing the world with shades of gold. How lucky he was to be an artist, a guild member in good standing. If all went well--and surely it would!--he'd come into his own before much longer. He'd have his own studio, a string of wealthy patrons, apprentices to make up his paints, and a fine house in the center of Brussels. All this assuming--and here lay Bruegel's great worry--assuming there was a market for the things he saw, and for his way of seeing them.
Seeing, seeing, seeing--very nearly the sum of what he did. So often he was the onlooker, off to the side of the street fairs and artists' gatherings in Antwerp, alone with his eyes and the pictures in his head. Peter the Watcher--more than one woman had called him that, and not as a compliment. Someday he'd have his studio, and his patrons, and his house; he'd have a wife and a family and he'd be a watcher no more.
Even as he reviewed these overfamiliar thoughts, Bruegel was examining his drawing, feeling each bit with his eyes, looking for any weakness or excess. Now and then he stooped to make a hook or a dash with the nib of his pen. Soon he was done. The picture was outside him now, born into the world, leaving a hole he could only fill with the next picture to come.
He put away his ink, pen, and paper and walked down the road, observing, as always, the way that a landscape sprang into a new kind of life when he moved through it. Bruegel savored the suave way in which the world's perspectives rotated: the nearby trees turned as if on spindles; the fields and orchards constellated themselves into new alignments; and the most distant landmarks seemed to sail along with him, keeping pace with his passage. The world danced a stately jig about you, if only you watched.
The little road arced away from a bog by the river and passed through a wet field crisscrossed with streams. The peach-colored clouds were reflected in the scattered patches of green water--exquisite. The road swung back to a ford in the river beside a couple of farmhouses. Behind Bruegel were Nice, Provence, and the setting sun, ahead of him lay the Alps, the Po Valley, Lombardy, Parma, Florence, and Rome. Some cattle stood in the river drinking water, with a peasant boy watching over them.
Bruegel had his own memories of tending cattle for Graaf de Hoorne, the nobleman who owned the estates where he'd been raised. Long, peaceful days those had been, off on his own with some bread and cheese, keeping the cows from the crops, leading them to good pastures, herding them home at night, with no company save a dog or, on the best days, the merry Anja. Sometimes, to make Anja laugh, he'd drawn faces with a muddy stick upon a cow's great, round side. Naughty Anja, more and less than a sister--where was she now? He'd never seen her once since they'd sent him away from the village. Out to seek his fortune. And here he was at the Alps, seeking ever farther afield.
Bruegel tipped his hat to the boy and picked his way across the water. A line of cypresses grew along the uphill road to the monastery. The trees' tops blended into one long worm, and the bare trunks twisted down like legs. Viewed as one great chimerical being, the line of trees was a caterpillar. Bruegel walked up the slope; he was happy to be finally starting up the slope of an Alp. According to de Vos, this was the route that Hannibal took up through the Alps in ancient times. Bruegel tried to visualize the Moorish troops and their elephants.
There had been an elephant in Antwerp last year, the property of a financier. But Bruegel had been off working as an artist's assistant in Mechelen right then, and before he could get back to Antwerp to perhaps sketch the elephant, the hot-blooded beast had died of the damp winter cold. The financier's partners had eaten the monster in a banquet that was a nine-days' wonder. Bruegel had only managed to see the tusks and a bit of the skin; perhaps he'd finally see a whole elephant in Rome.
At the top of the rise he found three low covered wagons standing in the monastery courtyard. It seemed that the monks ran an inn with the sign of a White Stag. Looking past the monastery, Bruegel saw that the village was larger than he expected, with perhaps as many as a hundred houses. It must have been a local holiday, for everyone was outdoors, noisy as Carnival. They were rushing about in ragtag groups, chatting and whooping, ever more of them streaming into the village for some unseen event higher up the peaceful mountain.
"Peter!" It was Martin de Vos, sitting out on a stone bench in front of the inn. He was holding a large white radish and a pot of beer. He looked uncharacteristically gloomy. "I've got beds for us in the common sleeping room. The Brothers have declared a firm lack of interest in our art, but I've haggled them to a very reasonable cash fee for our stay. Beer, supper, and morning porridge included." This sounded like good news, but de Vos was upset about something.
Bruegel sat down at his side, took a bite of the radish and a gulp of the beer. "Here it is," he said, getting out his drawing. "What's set the villagers a-buzz?"
"An 'Act of Faith,'" said de Vos with a great sigh. "It seems there was an old couple who lived next to the monastery's estate." He pointed. "In that stone hut right over there where the village begins. See how the door's been kicked in? The Brothers arrested the couple last week--they were named Joseph and Marie, of all things. They were deemed a sorcerer and a witch by the prior of the monastery, a Father Lorenzo. The ecclesiastics staged a quick trial, and today the villagers buried Marie alive and hung Joseph by the neck. The Golgotha is somewhere up in that woodsy valley upon your hill. The peasants have been straggling down for the last hour. Quite a festival they've made of it." De Vos took Bruegel's drawing and pointed to a spot on it. "I think the gibbet will be just about there. We'll have a look on our way to the pass tomorrow. Joseph the alchemist will still be dangling. Perhaps you can sketch him."
Bruegel experienced the quick phantasm of an imaginary smell as distinctly as if his foot had just skidded through a patch of human waste. The thought of hanged men always brought to mind this one particular stench. It came from three years ago, when he'd still been the apprentice of Master Coecke. They'd been in Brussels making a great faux-marble arch of wood and canvas to celebrate a state visit by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and his foppish son Philip. To add to the pomp of the reception, an exemplary heretic had been hung upon a gibbet to one side of the arch, a stocky weaver who'd made so bold as to own a printed copy of the Bible. Windy spring weather was in play, and the man's corpse was continually dripping a sharp-stinking brown fluid, the drawn-out evacuation of his watery bowels. The body was so close to the arch that, over the course of any given day, the fitful breezes would noticeably besmirch the vibrating cloth of the Emperor's hollow mock monument. Charles V's arrival kept being delayed, so Bruegel had to repaint the same panel four separate times, surrounded by the astounding smell of the hanged man.
"What folly," said Bruegel, reflexively rubbing his long, straight nose. "An alchemist?"
"An indifferent one. He used up too much of the prior's gold, it seems. And his wife was said to have made a potion to help a woman drive off an unwanted quickening of her womb. But I fear the central issue was quite mundane: a long-running dispute over grazing rights. Joseph and Marie's bit of land has joined the Church's holdings now. Prompt pontifical justice, just like back in the Low Lands. Can you remind me why we're going to Rome, Peter? To the rotten lair of the foul maggots who inflict the Inquisition upon us?"
"Shut your crack," snapped Bruegel, giving a quick look around. "Do you want to get stretched as well?" He got to his feet and tucked his picture back into his jerkin. "I'm going inside."
"Bring me another beer," said de Vos, tipping up his mug.
"Get your own, fool. If you're to hang, I barely know you." For the moment, any fondness he had for de Vos was gone. Bruegel felt tired, hungry, and beset by folly on every side. Without any further look at his companion, he headed into the inn.
It was a surprisingly airy room, with a high ceiling and tall windows in the walls. The windows glowed with orange and purple from the setting sun. Their casements were open and an evening breeze wafted in. A tonsured brown-robed monk tended a great wooden vat of beer. In here, all was order and peace. Bruegel took a deep, shaky breath, calming himself. He approached the vat.
"You are the other artist from Antwerp," said the monk in Latin. He was a portly man with sharp eyes. Bruegel knew a little of the international language, and he answered "Sane" for "Yes."
The monk topped off a mug whose foam had been settling, and handed it to Bruegel. "Your companion's already paid for your food and lodging. Sit down anywhere you like, and one of the novices will bring you some bread, cheese, and radishes."
Bruegel walked towards a long table with some men who were talking a Low German dialect which was close enough to Flemish for Bruegel to understand. Seating himself, he recognized one of the men. It was the young merchant Hans Franckert, a fat, powerful fellow with a wide, slitlike mouth. Though Franckert was originally from Nuremberg, he'd moved to Antwerp and become a citizen several years ago.
Franckert was a convivial man known for carousing with artists. He was often seen, for instance, at the gatherings of the Violet Chamber of Rhetoric. The so-called Chambers of Rhetoric were street-theater groups--they performed plays and skits at festivals, using their own scripts, costumes, and backdrops. As a matter of pride, nearly every crafts guild had an associated Chamber of Rhetoric--no less so the St. Luke's Guild for artists. The Violet Chamber's meetings were fecund with wordplay and creative ferment--small wonder that Franckert enjoyed them. The more calculating of the artists viewed the meetings as a good place to scout for patrons--or for friendly women. Though Bruegel would have liked to be one of these fishers of men--or of women--he inevitably ended up at the fringes of the Chamber's gatherings--watching. Though Franckert was only five years older than him, he'd never actually spoken to Franckert before. Somewhat to Bruegel's surprise, the merchant knew him.
"Peter Bruegel!" exclaimed Franckert, raising his beer. "You were the apprentice of Master Coecke, were you not? He was a mighty artist; may he rest in peace."
"I'm an apprentice no longer," said Bruegel. "I've been a Master of the St. Luke's Guild for over a year."
"Congratulations," said Franckert. "Meet my bookkeeper, Klaua, and my teamsters, Max and Moritz. We're on our way to Antwerp! My new hometown. Max here is a native of the Low Lands as well, the good Max Wagemaeker, my guide in all things Flemish. We've got two wagons filled with colors, spices, and Venetian silks. Whither are you bound, Peter?"
"I'm out to fill my eyes with the Alps and the treasures of Italy. I sketched my first mountain today."
"Show me," said Franckert. So Bruegel took his drawing out from inside his coat, holding it a careful few inches above the beery table. Franckert leaned forward, studying the image. "It's a mountain all right," he said presently. "Like looking out a window." He gave Bruegel a friendly clap on the shoulder. "Well done."
"I could sell it to you," said Bruegel. "I'm short of funds."
"The artist's fate," said Franckert. "I'm not averse to helping out a son of Antwerp. How much might you charge?"
"Could you pay a gold piece?"
"Not out of the question. I'm having a good trip." Franckert patted his heavy double-walled silk purse, which rested on the bench at his side, attached to his belt by a leather cord. The purse clinked fatly. "But let's enjoy each other's company a bit before pushing matters to a head."
"So what was your cargo to Venice?" asked Bruegel, stowing away his drawing. If conversation was what was wanted, he'd provide it. He'd learned from Master Coecke that some patrons were as interested in knowing the artist as they were in owning the art.
"German copper and quicksilver. We went down through Austria. I sold twelve big flasks of quicksilver to the Venetian mirror makers."
"I've never seen any large amount of quicksilver," said Bruegel, intrigued.
"The metal of Mercury," said Franckert. "It's wonderful stuff, as unexpected as amber or a lodestone. I keep a little sample of it with me." He fished in the folds of his leather coat and came up with a thick-walled, tightly corked bottle of heavy, shiny liquid. "Look," said Franckert, spilling a little puddle of the quicksilver onto the table. "Touch it, Peter."
Bruegel poked the puddle and it shuddered. The room was partly reflected in it. The great room's patterned ceiling, which Bruegel hadn't noticed before, was clearly visible, a tessellation of red squares and yellow octagons. The edges of the silver puddle dropped off steeply; the long lines of the windows were mirrored with abrupt bends. Now Franckert tapped the puddle hard, and it splattered into dozens of little balls, each of them a miniature round mirror.
"How wonderful!" exclaimed Bruegel. "And we can join them back together?"
"Just push them," said Franckert. "They melt together when they touch, unless there's dirt between them."
A tonsured boy appeared with a plate of food for Bruegel. Franckert used a scrap of paper to scoop up his puddle of quicksilver, pouring it back into its little bottle. He splashed a little water onto his hands and rubbed them on his shirt.
"Mercury harbors evil humors for the unwary," said Franckert. "Few of the men in the cinnabar mines live past thirty."
A few tiny balls of the mercury remained wedged down in the cracks of the table, peeping up at Bruegel like sly silver eyes.
Bruegel munched his bread and cheese, thinking first about the quicksilver, and then about the meal. The monks' bread was coarse and friendly on the tongue; the soft, shiny cheese was ripe and salty. Delicious.
It was pleasant to sit in the company of Franckert and his party. Their slurred, guttural speech, though not quite Flemish, was homey and comforting. For over a week now, de Vos had been Bruegel's only conversation partner, and the man's many peculiarities and character flaws had become galling.
Franckert was likable, with a manner less pompous than expected from a merchant. Back in Antwerp, Bruegel had regarded Franckert only from a distance, usually carousing and shouting with other, better-known artists. As Franckert's noisy jests and drolleries had never included Bruegel, he'd imagined that Franckert was a vain man who looked down on him. But now that fate had thrown them together, Franckert showed every sign of friendship and interest. Far from being a braggart, he was perfectly ready to share a laugh at his own expense. He seemed, if anything, more eager to impress Bruegel than Bruegel was to impress him.
Bruegel asked for some advice about the roads ahead, which got the teamsters talking not only about the highways but about the adventures they led to. The leather-faced Max told a ribald story about an amorous interlude in a Venetian stable, the tale embroidered with comments by the others. For Moritz's sake, Max was speaking in a low German that Bruegel found hard to follow, but his broad gestures and onomatopoeic grunts filled out the picture. The very haziness of the tale thus heard made it the more universal. Warmed by the beer, Bruegel found himself laughing easily and making his own remarks, fully part of the group.
The bookkeeper Klaua mentioned that they'd passed the gallows on their way down the mountain. The villagers had been gathered there in great numbers, making it hard to get one's wagons through. Franckert's company hadn't stopped to watch, lest some of their cargo be pilfered by the boisterous crowd.
As they ate and talked, Bruegel noticed de Vos repeatedly nipping into the eating hall for more beer to take outside--two mugs at a time. It was getting dark now, and a monk moved about lighting torches in the dining room and in the courtyard. Bruegel went outside to see what had become of his companion. De Vos was sitting on the same bench as before, drinking beer with a local woman who loudly used a few words of Flemish. Though it was hard to be sure in the torchlight, the woman was no longer in the flower of her first youth. She was plump rather than wrinkled; she had a fixed smile and a missing front tooth. Her name was Lisette.
"She wants me to spend the night in her cottage, Peter," said de Vos. "I can meet up with you in the morning." His earlier gloom had given way to cheerful abandon.
"Leave your purse and other valuables with me," muttered Bruegel in Flemish.
"Yes," hissed de Vos. "I'll do it as we piss together."
"This Lisette, this well-aged prickpocket, was she at the execution?" asked Bruegel as the two of them wetted the wall of the monastery.
"Indeed," said de Vos. "She said it put her blood all in a fever." He passed Bruegel his purse, his pocketknife, and the small brooch he wore on his cape. "She said the hanged man got a magnificent cock-stand, and that the buried woman screamed for nearly an hour. Yes, yes, Lisette wants me on top of her, as heavy as a fathom of earth."
"And you're done with raging at Rome, Martin?"
"We have but this one world to live in," said de Vos with his old cheerful grin. "It pleases God to test us." He persuaded the tapster monk to draw him two more mugs of beer, and then he and Lisette toddled off into the night.
Franckert appeared in the courtyard, checking up on his covered wagons. Their sides were made of lapped-together boards like a boat's hull, and they had big springs and huge spoked wheels. Hoops held the covers slightly domed up over the wagons, making room for extra storage. "Did I tell you I'm bringing painters' colors to Antwerp, Peter? They fill half this wagon. Look." Franckert loosened a corner of the covering canvas and prodded some bundles. "These packages hold a pigment called Indian yellow. Do you know it?"
"I've heard of it," said Bruegel. "But Master Coecke never used it. He preferred a yellow massicot made of roasted white lead." Bruegel peered closer, trying to make out the tint in the half-light of the flickering torch.
"The Indian yellow is remarkably rich and intense," said Franckert. "It's made from dried cow piss! A special kind of Calicut cow, fed only on mango leaves. And look here, see my blues? The most precious of the lot. I have both azurite and the true ultramarine, made of ground lapis lazuli, painstakingly separated from its gray matrix, twenty guilders per ounce."
"Peter Baltens got the chance to use some ultramarine for a chapel triptych I helped him on this past year," said Bruegel. "His contract with the sponsoring guild specified a full four ounces. We had a lot of sky."
Bruegel didn't mention that Baltens had hogged all of the color painting, limiting Bruegel to the monochrome underpainting of the landscapes on the front of the panels. At least Baltens had let Bruegel fully execute the gray-tone grisaille images on the backs of the triptych wings. Baltens had been able to make the rules, since it was he who'd obtained the commission from the guild steward. Bruegel still hadn't managed to obtain any commissions of his own, and sometimes it felt like he never would.
"You're lucky to be an artist," Franckert was saying. "If I hadn't inherited my father's business, I might have been one too. And, oh yes, it would have helped if I had the eye and the hand for drawing." Franckert laughed self-deprecatingly. He really was a very pleasant man.
"What other colors are in the wagon, Hans?"
"Since I knew I was heading for the artists of Antwerp, I brought along some vermilion made of Austrian quicksilver ore, so bright it pricks the eye. If that's too sharp, I've a rosier sort of red from the roots of the Venetian madder plant. I've laid in a full palette of Italian earth colors: burnt Sienna, raw umber, a mossy green, Verona brown, deep reds and ochers. The very soil bursts with tint in sunny Italy. I've an exquisite green malachite as well, azurite's sister. Have you finished many paintings since leaving your Master, Peter?"
"It's only been a year now," said Bruegel. "So there's been but the one triptych I just mentioned. The chapel piece for the Mechelen glove-makers' guild. Figures in a mountain landscape. Only now it occurs to me that Baltens and I had never seen a real mountain! We paint pictures of pictures; we repeat twice-told tales."
"I'm sure the triptych was every bit as fine as any Flemish painter's, my good Peter."
"I dream of a higher level of mastery," said Bruegel, responding to the encouragement. "I'll paint what lives and breathes and thinks--not what you see in dusty lesson-pictures. God's world, we creatures in it, and the world as mirrored in the phantasmagoria of our souls--that's my theme. Oh yes, Hans, someday I'll come into my own. In Mechelen, for instance, I made the backs of the triptych panels a grisaille of grotesques."
"Such as?" inquired Franckert.
"The creatures before the Flood. I put in a great number of man-lobsters." For emphasis, Bruegel made pinching motions with his fingers as he said the Flemish word for lobster, that is, kreeft. Franckert laughed and clapped Bruegel on the back.
Back inside, the monks had laid out pallets on the floor of the great room; the dining room was the inn dormitory as well. Cheered by the evening's good companionship, Bruegel slept soundly, his pack under his head.
In the morning, over their breakfast porridge, Franckert asked Bruegel to take out his drawing and show it to him again. He was actually acute enough to comment upon the way Bruegel had used the pockmarks and bumps of little shrubs to build up the long, shaggy curve of the mountain's edge. "It's like your hand was just pecking away at it," said Franckert. "So much pecking deserves a grain of corn! I'll buy it, my friend. But--hmm--I wonder if you could add some human figures in it? Perhaps some travelers?"
"Actual travelers?" said Peter, getting out his pen. "No saints or kings? You're a man to my liking, Hans. Real people for a real mountain." Working quickly, he put a few men in the corner, and signed the picture.
They completed the exchange out in the courtyard. Bruegel had made his first independent sale. His heart rose to the high blue heavens.
Franckert's party clattered off down the slope. A bare-legged little local girl who'd been standing around watching them suddenly began to shout. "Pee-ter Bruu-gel! Pee-ter Bruu-gel!"
"I'm your man," said Bruegel. "What is it?"
But the girl spoke a dialect which Bruegel couldn't understand.
"Do you come from Lisette?" asked Bruegel in halting French.
The little girl nodded vigorously and repeated the name Lisette. She seized hold of Bruegel's cape and pulled him forward. "Pee-ter Bruu-gel!"
"Wait," said Bruegel and ran back into the monastery to get his satchel. No point leaving it here to be pillaged. The noisy urchin led Bruegel through the village streets at a trot. The slowly stirring locals watched them going by. Some of them smirked knowingly. Finally on the uphill side of the village they came to a stop.
The sun was peeping over the high green ridge of the mountain and the sky was a luminous blue. It was peaceful in the heavens, but there was strife below, here at Lisette's little cottage. De Vos was lying on the ground nude, smeared with shit and feathers. A red-faced peasant stood over him with knife and a scythe. Lisette was in the cottage door, looking more sly than sorrowful. A few more feathers lay at her feet.
"Thank God you here," she said in broken Flemish. "My man want cut off you friend's sausage!"
"Help me, Peter," groaned de Vos.
Bruegel looked at the agitated peasant. He was toothless, and his chin was a grizzled knob right up under his nose. He gestured menacingly with his knife and sickle, looking for all the world like a lobster.
"You've riled a kreeft," chortled Bruegel. With Franckert's coin in his pocket, the world was a merry jape. "Martin de Vos, beshitted and befeathered for his sins."
De Vos managed the ghost of a smile. "A red kreeft, yes. He emptied the night pot upon me and slashed the pillow. I suppose he wants money for Lisette. Give him some."
"We want to go on our way," Bruegel told the toothless peasant. He pointed up the mountain and then, seeing no reaction, he made a gesture of handing out coins. "I can pay you a little bit."
The kreeft--man's eyes glittered, and his chin worked back and forth. He made an encouraging gesture with his knife.
"Here," said Bruegel, holding out some of the small coins de Vos had entrusted to him yesterday. Lisette skipped over and counted them. She said something to her man, who seemed prepared to back off. But now the little messenger girl piped up with new information. She'd been there to witness Bruegel's sale to Franckert, alas.
"We want the gold coin," announced Lisette. "If you no give, then off come you friend's sausage." The kreeft leaned over de Vos, rubbing his knife along his sickle. The clashing metals made an unsettling, slithery sound.
"You stupid, clumsy pig," said Bruegel to de Vos, all his good humor gone. But there was nothing for it but to draw out his fine new coin. When the kreeft saw the gold, a streamer of saliva flopped down from one corner of his mouth. These were very simple people. Lisette tucked the coin into her bosom, then brought out a basin of water for de Vos to clean himself a little. His clothes appeared next. And then they were on their way up the mountain, with Lisette calling a sweet "Au revoir!"
"Where did you get the gold piece?" asked de Vos presently.
"I sold my drawing of this mountain to Hans Franckert," snapped Bruegel, his humor still spoiled. "You're an idiot."
"Franckert? He was at the inn?"
"Yes," said Bruegel. "Didn't you see him? He had wagons of Venetian spices and colors for Antwerp. Too bad you didn't stay with us. Did you enjoy your night with the trull?"
"Nothing special," said de Vos with a rueful smile. "Push push, squirt squirt. We were drunk. And then this morning that man came crashing in. Yes, yes, he was very like a lobster. I'm sorry for the gold coin, Peter. You're a noble friend."
Bruegel didn't answer. They walked on in silence for a while. The morning sun was burning off the clouds; birds were singing all around them. Slowly Bruegel's anger faded away. "You're noble, too, Martin," he said, finally. "We're all noble. Even with the coin gone, I still have the memory of making the sale. Franckert was quite taken with my drawing. He wasn't the usual run of customer, expecting to see the same things over and over again. I sold my drawing and now I'm hiking up the very Alp I drew. What a fine day it's turning into."
"I'm still in a cloud of stink," said de Vos. "If we cross a stream, let's stop so I can have a proper wash."
They proceeded up the mountain, with the sun growing brighter. They heard the rushing of a stream, and another sound, the music of--a bagpipe? The path bucked up and turned a corner, bringing them into a level little spot in the side of the mountain. A stream flowed along the far side of the glen. In the middle of the flat spot was a big, slanted rock with a gallows mounted on it: two square-cut beams rising four times the height of a man, with a stoutly braced crosspiece on top. There were a dozen men and women in the glen, sweaty and dirt stained, dancing to the music of a bagpipe.
"They've taken down the alchemist," said de Vos. "Perhaps they're his friends or relatives?"
Dirt was mounded high upon a single fresh grave. Bricks scattered to one side attested to the weight the executioners had used to smother the old Marie. Seemingly the mourners had cut down the hanged Joseph and buried him with his wife. They'd erected a makeshift cross upon the grave, hallowing the earth where the unfortunate old couple lay.
The little company continued their piping and dancing. They smiled, in a solemn kind of way, but they didn't try to speak to Bruegel and de Vos. While de Vos bathed himself in the stream, Bruegel sat to one side, seeing.
Owing to the slope of the rock, the far leg of the gallows was longer than the near one. This had the odd effect that, if Bruegel imagined the rock to be flat, the farther leg seemed closer. This gave the gallows a twisted, illogical appearance, as if produced by a clumsy painter's mistake in perspective. Yes, the gallows seemed part of a Crooked World, an apparition that should dissolve in the light of day.
Bruegel opened his senses, feasting upon the details of the moment: the shapes of the thick round tree trunks, the leaves spotted with bright sunlight, the little river in the plain below, and here in this glen, the dancers and the grim instrument of execution. The sane daily world was so different from the Crooked World of the gallows.
How odd to think of the two fresh corpses beneath the disturbed earth and bricks, the two old people dead down there. Up here, the breeze and the sunlight and the music continued. Death was close and real; there was no cure for it but to live as deeply as one could, no answer but work and love.
Bruegel saw a quick darting movement at the top of the gallows: a magpie, black on top and white below. It let out a melodious trill, quickly answered by a second magpie perched on a stump below. A married pair, two wise old birds, hopping this way and that, singing and pecking, letting out little spurts of white shit with the twitches of their tails.
Now de Vos came back from his ablutions, clean and happy. He and Bruegel headed farther up the mountain. The music of the bagpipe followed them for quite some time.
Copyright © 2002 by Rudy Rucker