“Blind men rub their eyes and say, ‘This, is history…’.”
~ Albert Camus
When we moved into old Utrecht, burg of bad beer and heretics,
the sandstone walled cellar held a tall cedar feller of heavy varnish, sporting a tall, deep split in wood, unopenable door with keyhole huge looking as if for years immovable, standing erect though from heel slight backbent, prosceniumless.
‘What’s this monolith?’ I asked the Dutch housekeeperess, in German. ‘Oh that’ she laughed, bent in bonnet and broom, ‘is an old cabinet, tis claimed never used’ (she said ‘nether’ not ‘neder’ for ‘never’). It had belonged to the original house owner, Herr Van Wachende, thus twas called the Vanwachendbox, spelt this or thataway by Utrechters, oft mentioned in lectures by a prof named Schilebiecxx until the demise of theology in sechs und sechzig, (sixty-six). Often students came to the door, just to see what he meant. Two or three with old black keys believing they’d be the first moderns to see what lay within das altmödisches Ding. During the seventeenth century War of Orange a group of Soldaten wanted it drowned in the river but soon discovered that a vanwochendbax was an unliftable fish. Another time since some Belgian physicists with x-ray equipment claimed old man box was solid as a rock, filled to the brim with substance unknown, perhaps thickly packed black coal dust, or a kind of wood termed ‘St. Nicholas shoes’ like the stuff two centuries ago found within its Mt. Athos mediterranean companion, a counterpart dated by carbon to year 1307.
The odd thing about it was that it seemed too tall for a closet, too narrow for cabinet, seemingly designed with some sort of specific nook in mind, and given its weight were I still a child I could convince myself it be full of geld or gold, a vast mass of coins stacked, maybe some Templar treasure or a stash as hidden as the greed of old Luther, something like that.
Nightmares of realism I’d have of it too, like one wherein at dead of night I’d pried by tool the whackybax from the wall, even strenuously getting it forward in fall, and then when it hit stone floor making huge bomblike crack of a sudden the entire city sounded as though being bombed, with air raid sirens and searchlights and explosions all around popping into existence, sudden, as if vanwochendbox’s removal caused a cosmic shift, a universe whose space-time had been propelled adrift, so the thing emerged in mind then a kind of time machine opaque as an obsidion obelisk, toppled in disarray of great Fate’s masterplan apophatic (as Shillebcexx’d’ve said). (“Its purpose for us, for history,” he once wrote as lecture notes “is the presentation of the inexplicable in destiny.”) No wonder, I thought, his students would beg entry to this dank cellar’s semidark, to stand and gaze in thoughtful wonderment for days, like it were a timeless collage by Braque, or a Picasso on display.
The mystery to me was how something so readily uninteresting could become such an endearing mystery, culminating in its remaining utterly forgotten.
We remained in the old house for nearly a year, before moving off into the suburbs. Then, some fifteen years later and, after college, I did the required backpacking Europe thing, and although I had no plans for Utrecht nor to visit the Netherlands at all, I found myself one dawn taking the train from Luxembourg north to rewitness for myself the old Van Wochendhaus on the canal of concrete bridge with spots of old rust. Knocking on the door, an old man’s English was good but, regrettably didn’t know what I was talking about. Showing me the cellar, he just silently shrugged his shoulders when I turned to look behind at him after being somewhat astonished to find the thing gone, vanished, as if never there at all or, worse, a figment of nightmares long past. Though not thinking about wachenendebox for years it felt now a vast gap in my soul, like an old close friend mystery I unknowingly could not do without, or a world suddenly without cathedrals, the Eiffel Tower or Grand Canyon—quite strange! I wandered Utrecht half hoping the wochendbax would appear on a corner as kiosk or, diguised as a phone booth or postal box. I
stood on dark walk, staring down to next corner’s dim lamplight hoping it would appear there and, oddly, hope itself had me half expecting it so. In the Utrecht train station I lamely, vainly consulted huge phonebooth books for “Shillebecxx” oblivious to the fact he’d for years been dead.
By now thoroughly bummed, I opted to ride to Amsterdam. The helterskelter of its station did me well though, after some refreshment at a soggy café it again began to rain so I hurried along past the pink pastel lit windows with bluegreen interiors, the marketed ones sitting on beds smiling out windows with blank stares at the nothing of rain, now a grimacing despair.
There, then, glanced within one jailcell of sleaze saw I what I thought never meant to be. On backwall of set against wallpaper red beneath soft light the old rogue box of Van Wochenend, still seven plus feet in height! I tapped on the window, pointing behind her to wall; she just ignored me, looking above me, beyond. I ran through the side door, paid my guilders for ‘Zimmer nummer sechs,’ only to find out she knew nothing of it, nor any other aspect of her pseudo-boudoir’s decor.
But that I was the fourth to pay to inquire that day, usually there were an average of seven, dozens a month, mostly old men connected to Utrecht, of which now I was in sad astonishment one.