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When Dutch Klaas was Fearless



Honorable Mention for the 2014 Adroit Prize for Prose
Judge: Wendy Rawlings

When Dutch Klaas was fearless, he made promenades on the good side of Amsterdam and threw bread to ducks, and he was satisfied. He still thinks about the ducks; the Mallards were his favorites because he could imagine no reason for their green heads, and he fed them most, when he found them. The shelducks were gluttonous and looked morbid with their swollen red beaks, the wigeons were small and plain; he fed both little. The swans, of course, were the most elegant, but cruel, though everyone knows this of swans.

It is impossible to have Dutch Klaas without his ducks. He still has his little journal, and in the little journal he has kept every drawing. The drawings are all very poor, for Klaas cannot draw, and the couplets and quatrains that underscore most of the squeezed little pictures are leaden and bare. Klaas knows this, and does not let others see his book, though he never makes new entries. They are all from when he was fearless.

In the later pages of his journal, there are fewer pictures of ducks and more of swans; it is probable that Klaas realized around this time his profound gift for tracing that pleasing curve of a swan’s neck and clung to this. Indeed, many of the swans have no bodies at all. They have only heads perched awkwardly on smoothly arched necks, severed where the page ends. Soon after these, there are several unmarked pages, and the journal ends. The very last page, which was made of a thicker, yellowed card, has been torn out, and there is a stiff corpse still clinging to the binding.

The page is missing because Klaas once wrote a love note on it, and pulled it out and gave it to the prettiest girl in Amsterdam, though he tries now to forget everything he liked in her face. There was one sketch of her near the end, but later he added a beak and rough lines at the neck, and rounder eyes, and now it is a duck. Klaas was going to ask her if she kept his note, but something stayed him, and he knows now that he will never find out.

Klaas spends much of his time in daydreams, which are better illustrated than his journal. He tries, but cannot stop replaying those last weeks after he slipped the crumpled note into her pocket as they held hands on a bench by some canal in Oud-Zuid and watched ducks. He is probably thinking of this right now, and how pleased he was that she had not noticed, and then how nervous that she never would, so after they parted that day he sent her a message on her phone, telling her to check her pocket. The next day she came to sit beside him at a café near the bench and laid a rubber duck in front of him on the table. Klaas never opens his mouth when he smiles, but his lips dug so fiercely into his cheeks then, and his eyes almost vanished behind their lids, so his satisfaction sang for him.

“I was going to get you one of these,” he said. For a moment it seemed that he should return her kindness and his fingers rubbed the cover of the little book in his pocket. But the duck was in exchange for the note; it was best to stay even. Klaas withdrew his hand and instead locked her wrist in it.

“Well.” There was an amber stain Klaas had never noticed before on a front tooth, bared in her smile. He moved his eyes elsewhere, but held his smile. “I got there first.”

Klaas picked up the duck and set it carefully on her head. “Don’t move,” he said. He walked across the street to the edge of the canal and leaned against the bars of a fence there. The duck wobbled nervously with her breath, and she laughed at him.

“What?” she said, and the duck’s tail dipped as her chin dropped.

“Draw me,” said Klaas. “And don’t let him fall.”

She giggled and unfolded a napkin; her fingers moved softly like they might pull her head one way or another. There was a pencil in her jacket pocket (it belonged to Klaas but was her favorite color, so he had let her keep it), and this she took and put to the paper, while with her other hand she ironed the high, round folds from the napkin. The tip was dull, and made pale, thick lines, which was good because the paper was frail. She watched Klaas only from the tips of her eyes, for she could not risk turning her face, and thus what she recorded of him on the paper lacked detail. His arms and hips made a system of wires that encased a hollowness, but there remained something principled about her pictures, and perhaps this one most of all.

As he returned to her, he blew hard at the duck and knocked it from her head. “You’ll kill him,” she said, and lifted the duck from the ground. As she placed him upside-down on the table, a moving shadow dampened the duck’s bright body; Klaas knew from the shadow’s downy mane that it belonged to Tonio. Tonio had come to Amsterdam from Spain a while ago; now he brought coffee to tourists five days per week and smiled at everyone. He was extremely pretty, though the picture of his face enrages Klaas these days. (It had gray eyes and thick, bright lips which everyone loved, but Klaas would not want anyone to know he is remembering this.)

Hoi,” he said, and slid his hands down his thighs so they rested at his kneecaps. Klaas grinned and shook his hand in the unusual, inverted fashion Tonio favored.

“We have a duck,” said Klaas, “imagine that.”

Tonio lifted the duck off the table and squeezed the rubber, which was thick and gave little. “He looks like trouble,” Tonio laughed. “I think you should call him Pillo, because in Spanish it means ‘rascal.’ ”

The prettiest girl in Amsterdam (whose name was Julie, though you will not find it anywhere in Klaas’ journal) shuddered a bit with laughter and made funny shapes with her lips. “Pillo. Pillo.”

Tonio set a cup onto the table and poured it full of hot water, which neither had requested, but presumably he felt secure in assuming their order. Into this little pond he dropped a pouch of tea, which dyed the water yellow like Pillo’s skin; indeed, next into the cup went Pillo himself. The beaming Spaniard lay a second cup, whose pond had the brown-black of an Amsterdam canal, onto the table, and ran his hand roughly through Klaas’ hair while padding away with a bouncing gait.

At first they said nothing, but held one another’s hands and watched Pillo as he swam to and fro in a pond hardly wider than himself. (Later, at home, Klaas would make more tea for himself and add the little duck to the drawings in his book, though he could not avoid coloring the head green in the drawing.) They prodded at the little duck and laughed at how serious he held his face as he bobbed up and down in his chamomile bath, and Julie took long gulps from her cup of hot canal water and looked thirstily into Klaas’ eyes. In the canal behind them, a pair of wooden boats, both laden with something made invisible by big blue tarpaulins, scattered a family of ducks into the air, and Klaas tried to imagine how he would draw them in his book, but the shapes were gone too quickly.

At last Klaas stood, carrying Pillo, and made a circle about the table as though to snag Julie and drag her behind him, though she rose easily and followed him to the edge of the canal. “I’m going to London next week,” she said. Her cheek, which was very soft, pushed on his, and his pushed back as it crumpled with a smile. The idea of her being away pleased Klaas. There was a romance to separation, albeit brief, which he believed in but had never known personally. He envied, perhaps, the morality he could draw from a straining heart.

“I don’t worry,” he said. “English boys are all ugly.”

Klaas had hair so blond it was white, and crumpled ears, but a stern face with strong lines; he thought he looked Very Dutch Indeed. Someday, he thought, he would go elsewhere to live, so as to become something more than just Klaas, but rather Dutch Klaas. He had always thought he would like to have a prefix of some sort, though none had ever seemed to fit.

Julie kissed him and Pillo in turn. “To stay with my aunt,” she added, then kissed him again.

Klaas shrugged and pinched her ear or something. “I’ll live without you.” Again she kissed him, and gripped him so his ribcage fought against her chest, and whispered her love in his crumpled ears. There were other words she said besides, but now Klaas does not care what they were, and thinks he does not remember them.

“But now I have to go,” she said. “Because my sister is waiting.” If this were now, Dutch Klaas would have unclasped his hands and dropped his arms and watched her walk away, but this is a story from when Dutch Klaas was fearless. When Dutch Klaas was fearless, he disobeyed everyone he loved, and this is perhaps why they loved him.

Therefore he did not let go, but laughed out loud and shepherded her alongside him in his promenade along the canal. So long as she stayed, he could be here on the good side of Amsterdam and feed the ducks, though today he had nothing to throw for them. When she was gone, he would go home to the West, where violence had made silence in the streets, and brown brick crumbled slowly to dust. There were no ducks far in the West.

Once she had stopped protesting, Klaas could lead Julie to their bench on the other side of the canal, and they could watch boats again and talk, though today they seemed mostly to kiss one another at length, while boats drifted by, packed with the tourists of a hundred nations. “Today we are a sight,” thought Klaas as they strewed each other across the bench (so much as one can when on a bench), and he liked the sound of this sentence so much that he later wrote it in his journal, below a picture of a duck.

At some point the light sank into the canal, which entertained it briefly as long rays on its lazy surface, before extinguishing it completely. Amsterdam thus vanished; Julie’s breaths grew long and slow as those rays of dying sun on the canal, and Klaas pressed his fingers tenderly against her closed eyes, for these were the days when Klaas was fearless. That night, after he had towed her home, he slept beside her, not wishing to return to the West, for though Dutch Klaas was fearless, he was sometimes afraid.

Those days after she left did not pass so quickly as they had before. In the week Klaas passed without her, he arrived at the solstice, when sleep could never be found. He saw little of the canals, and few ducks. He heard little from Julie, who was lost in some frantic inertia of which he received no description, other than that there was no time for anything to be described at all. Klaas did not understand this, because Klaas’ life was lived in a state of perpetual description.

The last days were the longest and the brightest, and Klaas could never be away from the sun. The week was hot in Amsterdam, and on the last day Klaas returned to his café, if only to feel her presence in the chair opposite. He brought Pillo, whom he allowed to swim in a glass of juice as he scattered pencil lines around a page he took no interest in. For a minute, Tonio came to sit across from him, and watched him draw, and asked where Julie had gone. Klaas was short and later regretted the sharpness of his tone, though he realizes now that he never apologized to Tonio for that day. Perhaps there are many people to whom Klaas owes an apology he cannot find the words to make, for Klaas is usually at a loss for words.

She returned the next day, red like anyone who comes from England, and with a long gaze that seemed to bend reluctantly against Klaas, rather than to cut through him as it had before. When she smiled, the curve of her mouth was feathered like a sketch, and it rippled like wakes in the canal (most left by boats, but some by ducks). When he returned to the West that afternoon, Klaas was not afraid, but he felt as well that he was no longer fearless.

Tonio told him that same day how long it had been since she had come: three days now. His eyes were wide and earnest, and Klaas’, now, were thin and pale and pink at the sides like ducks’ feet.

In the heat of summer, the canal moved as slowly as life and the sky burned as violently as Klaas’ dying hope, which threw itself against walls and clenched its fists until the palms shone as stickily with sweat as the cheeks with tears. Klaas learned to break all the things he liked best, and each time his apathy grew, until there was nothing he could not throw to the thirsty canal with a fearless grin.

“She never comes,” said Tonio on one of these mornings, as Klaas scattered the shreds of a hundred pictures into the canal. He had left his journal untouched, but everything else he had destroyed, for it all stank of her, and she stank of the canal.

“I know,” said Klaas. “I come.”

“Klaas does not come,” said Tonio. He walked back into the café, and Klaas stood for a while against the railing, watching people eat and drink. He had never thought of the people about them when they sat at the café, but now he saw some happiness that ran between all of them, and he spat into the canal. He left for a time and went to stand on a bridge, where he could spit into the canal and Tonio could not see.

It was no use. Julie had ceased to float and Klaas had sunk. In some hopeful violence, as this unhappy day carried him like river silt toward an unalterable end, he murdered Pillo with the pencil that once had sketched him, and drowned him in the canal in the early morning, and waited for the bubbles to burst on the water’s surface and the yellow skin to grow heavy with brown water and slip away. He plunged him deep and watched the ripples subside.

Then up they sprung anew; the water shivered as Pillo resurfaced. Rivulets of dirty water dropped off his beak and made tiny splashes and tiny ripples. For a moment, Klaas thought he could see a pool of amber drifting off with the filth in the water, and remembered how he had twice made Pillo to swim in those cups of chamomile tea. It almost reminded Klaas of a color he had seen before, perhaps on a tooth, but he could not be sure. He turned and walked away from the canal, where a few ducks were settling on the silky water, which had just started to flow.


Dalton Fischer Linnett is a seventeen-year-old junior at Southbank International School in London. He was born in Seattle, and enjoys writing stories about foolish people in picturesque European cities.