Pulsing once again, the alien’s rays struck each of the two dozen galaxies in the Local Group that contained the Milky Way. There was no immediate sign of it, but they had all stopped rotating, something astronomers as far back as the 20th Century had always said could never happen.
Inside one of the tall, high gabled houses leaning inward toward the rutted public road--locally known as “Lucebert Avenue”--so named for Lucebertus Agricolus van Kuiper the rich patroon who platted most of the town--a street of stifled souls with no dreams that ran toward the palisades of Smut's Knob, the principal geographical feature of the area, Pieter had been thinking about the ferocious Two Hundred Year War his country had fought with the English.
Like small boys his age, he was full of questions to astound the old and wise, but unlike them would not learn anything.
"If we won, why did the bad, wicked English come back? I see 'em passin' through town sometimes in their big, fancy cars," the boy commented, his grave blue eyes turning to the world's greatest authority besides his mother and father.
"Don't know why exactly," responded the old man laconically as soon as he had got his breath. Full of black lung, he had been retired from a North Valley coal mine for years and was, understandably, a man of few words.
He had led something of a charmed life for Dutchmen of his generation, surviving to his age when most others in his work had been lost in cave-ins brought on by quake after quake.
That was a long sentence and cost the old man.
There was such a lengthly pause the grandfather naturally assumed Pieter had put the thing from his mind, but he was mistaken (though this was not the first time).
The old man was highly amused at the boy's simplicity, though his wooden-head denseness was not so wonderful a thing.
When Pieterzoon was younger it seemed to the grandfather that his grandson was maybe doofstom, or deaf and dumb, because he said so little and reacted so slowly to what was being said to him. Doofstom or not, Pieter was so solemn a soul he did not dare to let on and hurt the boy's childish feelings. There was a wait while the old one coughed, wheezed, and "got his air up" a bit more.
"Now don't be pullin' your tail feathers out over it, my boy. 'Tis a book here someplace to prove it."
Having no real imagination or not about to use what imagination he did have, Pieter could not even hazard a guess what the book could be, since he had never seen his grandfather read anything but the little New Alkmaar paper while it was still being published.
He thought he might have to content himself with that reply. A non-combatant because of his vital job, his grandfather was not much interested in wars, except for certain old privations they brought to mind--such as having to donate all iron scraps and grow as much food as they could in their gardens to feed troops. Thanks to the war, households had to give up shlemp too--and drink plain water!
The government had even asked them to give up tobacco to the army, but that was going too far.
Not even the Spanish had made his forebears give up tobacco! his grandfather had declared to his grandson many times when he was sure no one was listening in.
"What things be they buyin' from us?"
Grandpa van de Wordt's jaw fell open, almost losing a chaw of tobacco that wasn't supposed to be in a good Dutch Reformed mouth.
He sputtered around a bit and then took the boy by the shoulders, firmly, in the way he did when he was going to make a good, solid Dutch point.
"Boy, you're going to be the death of me! But let me tell you what they be buyin'. Sartainly not trees, which they no doubt got plenty of! Why, I seen these rich Englishmen with their snooty tooty looks, and most of them head for the City where they can get most anything for less than it costs them where they come from. I been to the City twice in my life and both times I never seen so much buyin' by these furriners. But they had the money! By the saints of Leiden! Nothin' but gold in their pockets! And they were most peculiar. No tobacco, no provisions, no clothings--but they bought old cars--and then they drove straight to where other sales was going on and done filled up on more old stuff. Once they did that it was back on the boat they comes in, car and everything!"
"Yes! They must have been fools to go for it like they did. You know those places where they kept those real old things--no, you don't know, so don’t act like you do. They calls them "mossy-le-ooms"--no, I reckon it was more like "musary-ooms." Anyway, the older the better it was to them. They wouldn't buy anything new we Dutch had made. Oh, no! I asked one feller loadin' up his car and he said to me the old machines lasted and lasted. If they bought the same thing new, it would turn to junk on him sooner than later, but one that was old would just go and go! They sure did have it all figured out--those Redcoats--but I saw something of that myself over the years on the job. Any shovels and picks we Dutch made didn't last a week out of the packing crates. The blame things would look sassy as a cat in the creamery one day and the next fall apart in your hands! You could never trust anything new. But if someone dug out an old hammer or shovel out from some old place where people used to live you can bet it would last him till he was full of black lung like myself and no good for workin' any longer."
This child's question was no doubt expected, but Grandfather was not about to tackle it head-on. Not only children asked it. And no one had any idea how to answer it. It was like trying to explain why the Earth was round and not square or flat or shaped like a wooden Dutch shoe. It was round and that was that. If it was supposed to be square, according to this line of thinking, the Almighty, who was naturally Dutch, would have made it square. Likewise, new things wore out terribly fast and old things didn't. and that was that--"that" being taken to mean "natural, " and natural meaning an act of God like an earthquake or glacier or a lightning bolt down the chimney.
After rolling the question round in his mouth some time with the tobacco, the old man was finally moved to reply. "Don't know exactly. It's jist natural, the way things be, that's all. An' we be stuck with it!"
This was more than a small boy could understand, and Pieter was no exception. He was getting very sleepy by the time the old man finished with his last question, his lungs laboring and wheezing to get the last words out. It was a long time before the old man found sufficient air in his lungs again for any more discussion with his grandson.
"Ach! 'Tis an old one, haven't peroost it in a coon's age!" said Pieter's namesake, who, in truth, had not read any Dutch war history. Until he had to put away his hard hat with its carbide lamp and his pick ax, he had had little time or energy to read, being too busy digging coal for 25 cents a ton, and 9 tons a day. Even the chance copy of the New Amsterdam Dutch Duty or Knickerbocker Slemp Bowl that came his way went half read after he “retired” to his wicker chair. Having said so much, he must have been feeling a little better at the time.
Then his grandfather did what was a miracle for one in his condition. He clutched the crumbling tome in his shaking hands and sent the silverfish scurrying into the binding as he slowly shared with him a scholar's observations on vanished armies, glorious battles, and a troubled peace.
It was a recent edition, despite the look of great age and much quoted in the capital, sparking much approval among those who still did not favor English trade and mercantilism, despite the glow of profit it brought to Dutch shores.
"Make no mistake, Readers of serious, educating books understand Destiny,' prefaced the no doubt berobed, gray-bearded scholar, Dr. Rosinius van der Buddenbrooks, Professor Emeritus of the University of New Amsterdam.
The author thought there the war could be fought more successfully against the superior navy of the enemy--the southern Dutch being more lively in the arts of ship building than any left in North America.
Pieter was too sleepy to catch this part. His white-blond head with the too-serious blue eyes had fallen on his chest by then.
At this point the grandfather let the difficult book of the university historian drop, which awakened the grandson with a start. Grandfather nearly dropped with it, after all those difficult, incomprehensible words. What the effort had cost him, only he knew. Normally, all his air would have been used up and it wasn't likely he'd "get his air up" again for some days. But his luck seemed to hold for once.
Instead of wheezing and coughing beyond help of doctor and medicine, Pieter's sick old grandfather did yet another remarkable thing. He threw all Dutch caution to the winds. Pulling out a long-stemmed pipe from a hiding place, he lit up and began to puff away with glorious abandon.
If that wasn't enough flying in the face of Old Lady Luck or simply good Dutch Reformed sense, he winked at the astonished Pieter watching him and reached deep into a hole in the leg of his wicker chair. It held hard crabapple cider he had secretly brewed in the woods from their own tree. No watery "English coffee" for him!
It was a good thing Pieter's mother was scrubbing the skin off a kitchen sink and wasn't paying close attention to a reprobate grandfather's misdoings as he teased the Grim Reaper on the grave's edge. Pieter's father, if he had tried a smoke and tipple at home, would have merited a copper skillet about the head and shoulders. The old man found his cache of cheer and enjoyed it to the hilt.
Seemingly unaware he was scandalizing his grandson, the old fellow would have turned to song, but his voice was long gone by this time. Otherwise, he would have made a valiant effort to belt out a Dutch song about the great victory at Van Noaquanogg Knob, where vastly-outnumbered Dutch forces led by a Dutch Joan of Arc kicked the British hordes back into the sea.
Mrs. van de Wordt went to stand at the back door opening to the kitchen, exhausted. She was waiting for the slow, halting, familiar footfalls of wooden clogs. Her head began to nod where she stood, as the bread-winner was late, perhaps working overtime despite that bad back of his. It was her lot in life, alas, to marry a boilerman in the barge-making business! His work day never seemed to end when the other workers' did. He always had to be checking their work and maybe finishing or fixing what they hadn't done quite right. She never knew when he might come home, and try to hold a hot meal for him? It was like trying to hold catch snow flakes in a blizzard--not that a proper Dutchwoman like herself had ever tried something crazy like that!
She glanced at the boiled turnips turning to mush in the pot. Oh, where was her man?
More thriving South American ports clamored for such equipment, at any price.
Redcoats--ingenious middlemen that they were--had sent Dutch-speaking, fast-talking "vultures"--agents to look the precious few businesses of New Alkmaar over for possible take-overs and closures.
The canal that sent a lake of fog creeping over the canal town each morning and evening also bordered the Ways. There the mist was a real nuisance to hard working men., making it hard to see missing planks in the piers or road puddles that could swallow a horse.
The Ways, poetically called the "Golden Mile," were a long, rat-infested, stinking clutter of workshops and dry-docks where Pieter's father earned the van de Wordts'' daily bread. The Ways could also be a cruel place, shutting off the flow of bread and butter in a mere instant of time. A slip of a tool or machine, off went a leg or an arm. But there were also explosions and fires, taking lives, not just limbs.
Now all that had been forgotten came back to him, crisp as new banknotes he had once seen in an Englishman's hands. As it had been related to him when he was a mere boy, he informed his half-awake grandson that even the stars commemorated the ship. He particularly emphasized that it was a good DUTCH ship, of course. Yes, other nations ventured upon the sea waves with various craft, but none could compare to Dutch vessels, of course!
Life, after all, was no game for a plain Dutch boy of the late 24th Century who didn’t even dream about a rocking horse for Christmas. Though he was only one of a crew of champions under the leadership of Captain Dietrich van Tiphys, in the dream he was mathematical, set in charge of dividing the spoils so that everyone who did their job right got an equal plain Dutch share.
As Pieter's body and mind first began to change toward that of a man's, his grandfather, lungs gone completely from too much coal dust and elicit pipe smoking, slipped quietly away in his wicker chair. Undetected, the bottle of hard cider would sour slowly to vinegar.
The book of historical Dutch exploits stayed put on the shelf and Plain Dutch Practicality, Thrift, and Lye Soap, never really deposed, ruled supreme in the proper van de Wordt household--just as they did in every other household in town.
What Pieter saw was a large, rambling timberered barn empowered by water wheels and a channeled creek. The mill's no longer used buildings were derelicts, with doors broken off their new hinges and lying in the weeds and thistles.
A rail line had been built and led into the flour mill, but the push cart to service it had no mule to go with it but the good Dutch human kind--that was the usual, heart-breaking end of expensive new improvements, but it was always written off as natural, another instance of the hated so-called English disease that was always wrecking everything! Beyond the door of the mill, the cement was worn smooth enough to slip on if you weren't careful. Inside lay a lot of sickly pale, bluish corn meal covering everything, but it was still pure gloom to match the desolate exterior and yard.
So from a tender age, Pieter's nostrils, hair, clothes were clogged with the mill's dust and chaff. He was quite a sight when, well into the evening, he came slogging home through the mist and mud for a late supper. Not that he needed to hurry any. Supper for the fatherless would be thick but butterless porridge of unsalable mill sweepings and maybe toasted bread--all they could afford after the elder Wordt's death.
Once home, outside the door, he performed a kind of ritual. First, he flung aside his clown like nose sponge he had tied there to keep out dust. After flogging himself with his hat and giving half a dozen good blows of his nostrils, he would kick off meal-caked boots. Then he'd go in and wash up in a bucket with his mother's strong, lye soap before eating. No man of hers was allowed to touch her sink, naturally.
Though hated, millwork was work this budding Dutch man of New Alkmaar needed desperately, but he still boiled inside. He wanted more than anything to work like his father in the barge shed as a trained and professional millwright, not muck about in mill dust all his days. Building barges, he thought, was work a man could be right proud of.
"I ain't going on with this dirty millin' truck much longer," he told his remaining parent night after night as he sank wearily down in his chair at the table, his clothes giving out a last puff of gray-blue corn dust.
He couldn't escape the mill, even in private places. Shorts of his homemade underwear were emblazoned "Van Tootle's Best Ground--" in front and "--Flour & Meal Products" in the rear. Five such years in the flour bin slowly passed. By that time seventeen year old Pieter had had his fill--and then some. “Oh, why can’t I be a boilerman?” he wondered, in growing desperation.
Clammy canal mist had a way of freezing to clothes and exposed faces until they bristled with furry whiteness. People who had cars and didn't have to hoof it through this frost-bite country were very fortunate. These were usually strangers, not residents, just passing through New Alkmaar on way to "The City," which in these parts could only mean New Amsterdam.
Men labored in the unheated workshops of the Ways, doors open on the barge barns as if it were mid-summer in the Surinam tropics. They stopped now and then to blow warmth into indigo-colored hands or tie long strips of rag around freezing, bluish legs and ankles. At the mill Pieter also wore extra clothing and so many raggedy "leggins" he felt like a scarecrow. Being so full of youth and energy, some thought he did not suffer as much as his elders. Wrong!
In other ways too, his youth and inexperience were held against the fatherless young Pieterzoon. Because of hopelessly low seniority, Pieter wore many hats at the mill--each as humble as the rest. His job was to be a "shovel" when the corn meal spilled from containers on the floor.
He was also a "broom" when not "stacker" of flour-filled sacks, or "loader" of sacks into trucks or horse-drawn wagons at the dock. At the end of day, he might be found a "ratter"--for the mill swarmed with greedy vermin like so many English buyers at a museum sale in the capital. Any he collected in traps he knocked in the head and they went in a barrel. Even rats had a value. A rat merchant came, paid a penny or two, and took them off to a glue maker and the skins went to a furrier who made "almost like mink" collars for women's coats.
He filled quite a few barrels that way, since the rats were so well fed at Tootles they grew careless and blundered into his traps.
Someone stood over him roaring with laughter.
Pieter didn't stop to inquire. Steaming, he sprang up to deck his attacker. But it was Horst van Syckle the mill operator.
Pieter, hesitating, did some fast thinking for anyone small-town Dutch. If he did something rash, he could lose him his job. Then what would he do for a living? That would ruin things, as he and his mother depended on his mill earnings. Yet rage, not dependable, plodding Dutch reason, won out in the end. He did the rash thing.
After five years of doing all the scum bag jobs the mill could dream up, he had to vent his fury on someone. And who was, at that moment, more deserving than the practical joker himself?
He faced the manager, fists balled for action. Unfortunately, Horst as his chosen antagonist was many sizes too big. He also had a belly renowned for catapulting people against walls and knocking them senseless. Called "Leadbelly" by the whole work force of the Ways, the mill manager had often challenged them all to hit him in the midriff as hard as they could, but their greatest efforts only made him laugh. Pieter knew all this, but he still couldn't control himself.
"Do that again, and I'll kick the Englishmun outa ya!" Pieter cried, eyes squeezed to slits with suppressed anger. To kick out an Englishman was the dirtiest thing he could think to hurl at another man It was equivalent to calling someone a traitor to the Dutch motherland.
Yet Pieter's outburst made the manager laugh all the more and hold his famed man-killer. Nope, he wasn't going to fight a mere, snot-nosed boy--and one acting up like a staunch patriot! "Get back to work!" Horst gasped with a mountainous spasm of glee. "Why, kick the Englishmun outa me, will ye? Hahaheeha!"
"Just wait, Hog-snout!" he vowed, choking with frustration. He thought how he'd trip Horst right off the dock into the stinking canal when he wasn't expecting. He'd let Leadbelly swallow a ton of water and duckweed first before he helped him out.
Then Pieter tripped. All he had time to feel was a little tug at his ankle.
Before he could cry out, his bulky, ragged winter clothing caught fast on the shaft and his legs were instantly broken and twisting around the spinning, steel rod. The driver went all the way through the building from the ground to the roof. He was being rapidly hoisted up, feet first toward the high ceiling.
Pieter was too shocked to cry out. But someone must have yelled for him. It was heard down the Ways and even people in town claimed later they heard the poor boy's terrible cry of pain. Men came running from nearby buildings, while everyone in the mill stopped work, frozen at their work stations.
As he was dragged and whirled upwards, some men on the various floors he passed saw him and rushed to pull him loose. Another man shouted down for someone to disengage the drive shaft from below.
Pieter was almost toward the top rafters when the shaft slowed gradually to a standstill and his limp body ceased twirling like a lifeless, voiceless rag doll.
When the men got him down, stripped of clothes and bleeding everywhere, he was given up for dead. His left leg was the worst, held to his body only by flesh and skin and the exposed nerve.
"It's your fault, Horst you old devil!" cried one man, risking his job and life in hasty anger. "Ye's been too hard on the lad, and look how he's as good as kilt, damn ye!"
Five months later, the doctor left him in his mother's care and pronounced him a total, helpless invalid for the rest of his life. Somehow they would have to manage without government aid--for such things had long, long ceased to be, though some foreign aid was still going to European countries worse off than Holland America--lands the Dutch were anxious to keep free of English control and exploitation.
His mother, when not caring for him, took in washing and sewing from the few households that could afford to send out such work. Actually, that expedient was less than nothing. They could not live on a few, extremely hard-earned pennies.
Yet youth somehow retains deep reserves age has left far behind. Pieter, feeling strength return, felt he could more than match strength with Dutch courage. He was young and foolish, it seemed. His mother had given up hope. But he still refused to give in to the doctor's death sentence.
He found his voice and began saying a few words, for he only had strength for few. "As long as I'm the man in this house, we're not going to go without bread on the table!" But he knew that meant he would have to get back on his feet somehow, go and apologize to Horst, and just maybe he'd give him his own job back.
He must have said it too often--that he'd be bringing in the bread and butter, not her--for one day she heard him and reacted. Her weeping, swollen-eyed face confronted his prone suffering form.
"How can you say such a thing?" the widow shot back at him, shocked but also amazed by his revived confidence.
He was, she could plainly see, no man, and only half a boy. Where now would the bread come from?
Pieter knew it too. But he couldn't help himself. After his brave, manly outburst, he stared at his mother, standing bent over before him like an old woman he no longer recognized. With long tendrils of fog creeping in around her thickly wadded ankles, she stood like a candidate for the poor house--or mad house, he couldn't be sure, her fist and apron in her mouth to stop the ceaseless crying.
He found he had nothing more to say to so weak a person as this former stout-hearted Dutch wife and mother. What he saw now before him was a stranger. Why, her Dutch apron was even dirty!That's how far she had sunk. Was it any wonder, after what he had gone through that Pieter felt completely estranged from her and her weakness?
So Pieter refused to give in and he and his mother went on living together, though as strangers.
It seemed vaguely familiar to him. Where had he heard or read that? Then the thought came that he ought to apologize to Horst. "Never!" he cried to the four scabby walls of his sickroom. "Apologize to that fat, old devil to get back my old job! Never! I’d rather kiss an Englishman’s horse!"
Yet when he awoke in the morning, the incident forgotten, he felt renewed strength and confidence as the new day began. Where it had come from, he had no idea. And he wasn't the type to do any asking. Even when his mother came in the room, characteristically and depressingly haggard, unwashed, and sleepless, somehow that was more proof that he had turned a corner. In spite of his mother and the doctor's prognosis, he refused to accept invalidism and dependence on his mother the rest of his life.
His courage renewed, he began to look about for ways to get on with life. After thinking about it a bit, he seemed to know just what to do. With bits and pieces of leather from his grandfather's oldest boots (he knew better than to use new material), a ruler for measuring, and a few borrowed cobbler's tools, he sewed and nailed together a socket for his left leg stump. To this he attached a stout length of wood and the heel of his work boot. To the stump of his right amputated leg, he attached the rear heel of the other boot, lacing it tight. Yes, he had lost precious manly inches of height, but he had made new legs!
Then, the crutches. Fortunately, New Alkmaar was on the site of a formerly large community with colonial structures going back to the first Dutch dominion of seven centuries past. Anglo-America disappeared now and its name forgotten, still there was plenty of old lumber for the taking.
After so much lying in bed, it took two weeks of hard work to make everything, but it was worth it. On his crutches, he began working his way about the house and then the yard, falling time after time but always getting up and starting again.
"You see, a fella like me don't need help after all!" he thought, pleased with himself and his renewal of mobility. "I don't need to call on nobody, nohow! And I ain't kissin' up to old Leadbelly!"
So much for youthful intentions!