This is the beginning of a story that occupies my mind and my writing time these days, and one of the big reasons I haven’t been very present on your blogs or on mine. I’m sorry! I’ll try to remedy this in the following days, that is catch up with my friends’ blogs.
Keep in mind it’s just the first draft – I’m still heavily editing it. As always, constructive critique is very welcome… :-)
In his obscure and now impossible to find book, A Compendium of Bizarre Things, my great-uncle Gerardus de Kremer, the eminent anthropologist and esoterist, dedicates a miniature article to what he calls the “green hand of the Devil”, a mummified hand of normal proportions, except that the dried skin was green and it had four fingers instead of five. The brevity of the said note is rather disconcerting by comparison to the other entries where my great-uncle’s meticulousness and erudition shine through with unrelenting force. It almost feels as if he’d rather have left it out if not for his deep compulsion for rigour and truthfulness. This abandonment had much surprised me at the time, even disappointed me, given the lengths at which he had then gone to acquire its bizarre story.
There’s been more than a quarter-century since.
That I would even think of this “green hand of the Devil,” of all things, while I watched the red brick tower of Sint-Pietersstation approaching, was beyond baffling to me.
Funny how our minds tend to hop around, skidding through the most unexpected associations only to end in a place far away from where the first thought started. Or maybe not that far away. Call it premonition, if you want, or telepathy, or just plain coincidence, whichever you prefer.
I climbed down from the train that had brought me to Ghent from Paris, my little suitcase in hand, a little wobbly on my feet, like a sailor who hasn’t returned to shore for a long time. In my breast pocket I carried an envelope, the stiff reminder of what had urged me here, this long-abandoned little town of my birth.
“The time is near. Come at once to claim your legacy,” my great-uncle Gerardus had written, in his sharp, nervous handwriting. How well I remembered his harsh, authoritative manners that never suffered any disobedience yet commanded the utmost unconditional respect. The old dog! Who could think he was still alive? He’d been ancient even when I was a young boy and he dragged me with him in his wild-goose chases.
It was a crisp mid-afternoon of September. The rain had stopped just as the train was pulling into the station and, in front of Sint-Pieters, the already fading sun played into the infinite mirrors of puddles. The trees boarding Königin Maria Hendrikaplein were round and green, and the narrow houses and hotels behind them were red and yellow, and this place that had once been a part of me, seemed now only oddly familiar, like an old song giving off a vague pang of melancholy.
There were three taxis waiting at the corner, but I wanted to walk a little, not sure even if I knew what I was doing there.
I turned on Königin Astridlaan and, before I knew it, I was standing in front of the second-hand bookshop of Mr. Adhémar, my place of pilgrimage in my teenage years. I couldn’t count how many hours, days, years even, I had spent in the little store, while assisting my great-uncle. I used to be familiar with every corner, every speck of dust on those old treasures, but modernisation has brought here too its changing touches. The owners had transformed the area within the immense bay window into what seemed a cosy coffee shop; I wondered if Mr. Adhémar was still there and how he could allow the clients to browse his precious books while sipping the aromatic brew of Mrs. Adhémar.
For a moment, I wanted to turn and leave but then I allowed a whim to take me inside. With relief, I recognised Mr. Adhémar when he turned at the sound of the entrance bell, his waist hugely rounded, otherwise age clement with him.
“Oh, oh,” he said, as a recognition mixed with incredulity came over him. “My dear boy…”
He hugged me, resting his white head on my chest. His warm surprise and welcome brought discrete tears to my eyes.
How I've grown. He couldn’t believe how many years had passed since he’s last seen me, was it twenty, thirty? And what news I had about my uncle?
He’s still alive apparently, was all I could tell him.
Was I married? Did I have any children?
Yes, my wife and two sons were in Paris.
I should come teach at the fine university we have here. And I had to stay and have coffee there and a mastel, on the house of course, lest I would bring him a pain as big as his joy of seeing me again.
I agreed to this open-heartedly and I sat at one of the three tables. He returned almost immediately, the coffee steaming in the finest china cup, the mastel the biggest bun I had ever had, but then he retreated to tend to a customer.
Among the books left on the table, there lay one that caught my attention most obtrusively, due to its size and its bright yellow cover, and I took it out of the pile to flick through it. “Country Fairs and Road Shows of Western Europe in the 19th Century” was the title. It was a perfectly preserved hardcover from 1920, richly adorned with splendid sepia illustrations. Three men high, fire-eaters, fakirs sleeping on nails, sword-swallowers, giants holding dwarfs on their shoulders. I couldn’t believe the chance of falling upon such a treasure. An atlas, more, of wonders that have enchanted every child’s world. I was prepared to buy it, not only to please good Mr. Adhémar, and I turned it over to search for the price.
I don’t know how it slipped from my clumsy hands, maybe it was the high glossiness of the cover, or my unusual absentmindedness. As I dived, rather inelegantly, as not to drop it on the floor, a yellowed paper fell from the tome. I picked it up with the tips of my fingers and carefully unfolded it lest it would disintegrate.
It was an old poster – a jewel in itself - advertising the Grand Fair at Ghent, June 7 to 17, 1914. Oh! Not even the World Expo from ’13, not even the annual festival at Ghent had imprinted on the memory of the adolescent I was then as this travelling circus had. The last before the Great War. The greatest circus of them all.
I must know. I have been there. That’s where we found that “green hand of the Devil.”