Thursday, August 19, 2010

YET ANOTHER CHRISTMAS CAROL

This tale is not mine to tell but one I stumbled upon … last day in Antwerp and while my friends emptied out souvenir and designer stores, I wandered about the city square till I saw two tall towers, peering above the rest of the city, glinting in the fading light of a spent sun. It was the city cathedral. Inside the cathedral, stood proud old walls adorned with masterpieces by the Flemish master Sir Paul Peter Reubens. I started taking pictures of the cathedral’s tall spires. As I backed away to try and squeeze the length of the tower inside the frame, I stumbled and fell bum-first onto a low platform that rose less than three feet from the cobbled street. It was a stone plaque with a pen-and-ink picture of a big dog and a little boy with an inscription that said, “Nello and his dog Patrasche… symbols of eternal friendship, loyalty and devotion.”

Intrigued, I asked Pierre, our Belgian host if he happened to know what this was about. Pierre nodded “Ah… eetz a nice story!”

The path that led away from the cathedral was lined with taverns where people sat around little wooden tables, swigging away pints of golden froth. Pierre looked at them longingly, then walked towards one of the tables. I followed dutifully… he sat down and ordered one of their Belgian brews… and then having wet his whistle began his story…

The dog of Flanders (the Dutch speaking region of Belgium, French-speaking Wallonia being the other) they call it, and it’s a tale that stems from the quill of a lady of letters named Maria Louise Rame, a.k.a Ouida. She lived in England and loved animals and children, I was told. She’d travelled to Antwerp in the late 1800s. In those days, life was hard and the winters cold but in the early mornings on winding paths that led to the city; you could always count on the sight of a big hairy dog pulling a small milk cart with a cherubic little boy in a hat and a scarf skipping along to cheer you up. Ouida too must’ve come across these little milkmen of Flanders during her trip and one of them must’ve inspired her story…

On the cobbled road out of town once walked an old bent man called Jehan Dass and his little grandson, an orphan called Nello. Jehan would push along a milk cart to sell to people in town and together they eked out a living on crusts of dry bread and a bowl or two of soup. One day while walking along this road, they came across a big hairy heap lying by the side of the road… it was a large dog, the one they call the Bouvier des Flanders, or the cow herder of Flanders. Hungry and tired it lay, its flanks heaving with laboured breath. Nello knelt down and took the big heavy head in his lap and the animal’s feeble tongue gave him a tired lick. His fur was matted around the neck and chest suggesting a milk man’s harness with open wounds where the harness had dug in. These dogs are strong and brave but this one was weak and had been given up for dead by his master. Jehan and Nello dragged the dog onto their little cart and took him back home. There, under Jehan’s care and Nello’s love, the dog started back on the path to good health.

One day Nello and Patrasche (for that’s what they called the dog) were chasing sunbeams on daisies, while old Jehan was struggling with the cart but as he tried to push the cart along, Patrasche jumped ahead of the cart and wouldn’t let the old man go until he relented and placed the cart’s harness around the big dog’s thick neck. Thus started a partnership between the little boy and the big dog that would melt hearts on their way to the market.

Some years went by and little Nello’s heart would race ahead of him every time his eyes met the flashing blue eyes of Aloise, his rich neighbour’s daughter. They were both the same age but of course, Aloise’s father would never approve of poor little Nello, the milkman’s grandson. But little Nello had a plan. He loved to paint and he dreamed that one day he would become a rich and famous artist, just like Reubens whose paintings he knew hung on the walls of the cathedral. And as luck would have it, the city announced a painting competition. The prize money was sure to set up the winner’s career as an artist. Nello, the youngest of all, painted with such passion and vision that all who saw him believed that it was he who’d win the prize. But alas it wasn’t to be… the judges chose the work of a boy whose father was a respected town council member, and though a better artist than the winner, poor Nello went back a much poorer boy.

When home, the news was no better. There by the fireplace lay old Jehan. Patrasche licked and Nello cried but it was too late… old Jehan lay crumpled cold and dead.

Nello’s tears were yet to dry when a fire engulfed town. All fingers pointed at little Nello, and with no one to defend him, he just had to leave…

But Nello wasn’t alone that night. Patrasche, his loyal friend ran into the snow to be with his young master as he walked away. With no place to go, what did little Nello do? It was Christmas Eve and he was going to the cathedral… to speak to God and to see a Reubens. He had no money to give though and so he wasn’t allowed to see the paintings. But as the night wore on, Nello finds an open door… He enters with Patrasche at his heels and finds the paintings and there he kneels… in devotion and faith, in agony and out of breath… Patrasche knows his master is weak… he puts his big head on Nello’s shoulder and tries to comfort him from the weather and fate. Nello hugs the big dog and cries himself to sleep… Patrasche understands… he is tired and cold… oh so cold…

Next morning it is Christmas day…the doors open, people pray and the organs play…but suddenly it all goes quiet, for someone sees the boy and the dog…in that corner they lay… alone but for each other…in a lonely corner that’ll forever be theirs…frozen in time in the dead of night… lay dreams and hopes, love and pain, and two friends dead and gone…

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