Amarylis De Gryse: Ordinary Men
At the request of the Flemish-Dutch House deBuren eighteen young Flemish and Dutch authors each brought a painting from the Rijksmuseum back to life. They wrote a new text about an old work from the Gallery of Honour, based on one key question: what do you see when you look at these paintings through gender glasses? Amarylis De Gryse got inspired by the painting The Company of Captain Albert Bas and Lieutenant Lucas Conijn. She explores the inner life of a militiaman: ‘With my left hand on my midriff I can feel the turmoil I’ve caused raging inside. It’s a secret.’
Amarylis De Gryse (b. 1989) writes her fiction on a campsite threatened with closure, somewhere along a motorway near Antwerp. Her short stories have made it onto the shortlist and longlist of the Great Lowlands Writing Competition. In 2019 she graduated from Antwerp Writers’ Academy and she is currently working on a novel.
Govert Flinck, The Company of Captain Albert Bas and Lieutenant Lucas Conijn, 1645 / Amarylis De Gryse © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam / @ Marianne Hommersom
We’re just ordinary men. We don’t talk much. We like eel and chicken, and give us no water but undiluted beer only. Until we’re laughing and crying and slurring our words. That’s who we are. Men. That’s how we were made. Small copies of the past. We’ve held out longer than those who posed with well-fed bellies, long before we were born.
When the doors close, we lower our banners and drop our shoulders. We vacate our positions, saying little more than ‘pooh-pooh’ or ‘long day’. We sigh, grumble, stretch a muscle or two and for now I know to keep my mouth shut. At least until everyone’s seated. So I sit down at the edge of our frame, and like the others let my legs dangle, knowing I can talk soon. The evening repeats itself forever because we’ve never been more than a fleeting moment.
Lucas takes a chicken from his bag—always Lucas, always a chicken, always prepared by his wife, although we never get to see her. He takes a mouthful and then passes it around. I wait until I have the chicken and everybody’s attention and speak up.
‘So gentle,’ I say. ‘Surely you all felt it too?’
Eyes dart every which way. At each other and at the floor. At the top of the guard’s head as he makes his final round—not at me.
‘I’ve never been so profoundly touched. None of us. I think I cried that evening, and your cheeks were also damp for a long time after.’
As if I didn’t exist before. And then with each touch realised: yes. This is me. These hands and fingertips and shoulders, absolutely. As if they only came into being at that point. As if I didn’t have a history until his hands gently defined my lips and played with my curls as well as with the light that would be falling on them. It was as if I only knew longing once he’d put it into my eyes.
We’ve been standing here for so long and we can’t leave, so we all keep quiet. We pose, as we do every day. I’m right. Because nobody whispers back. It was more than the warmth and comfort any of us had ever received from a woman’s loins. With my left hand on my midriff, I can feel the turmoil I’ve caused raging inside. It’s a secret. We carry it together.
A cough. The rustling of clothes when somebody shifts his weight from his left to his right foot. Then somebody takes the chicken from my hands. I lick the leftover grease from my fingers. Lucas says his wife prepares the best chicken. Everyone agrees.
All of us carry so much that we never talk about. Banners and weapons and clothes and titles, especially our titles since we’re only ordinary men. We don’t talk much. We like eel and chicken and give us no water but undiluted beer only. Until we’re laughing and crying and slurring our words. That’s who we are. Men. That’s how we were made.