Monsieur Augustin Vautour loved to walk. He walked each day to his large office full of the stuff of life and death. Grotesquely positioned and grinning human skeletons at each corner, anchoring shelves and cases of artfully arranged jars and bottles with kidneys, tumors, spinal cross sections -- most human viscera, static and distorted in amber, death fragrant formaldehyde. Monsieur Vautour lectured on human anatomy and was a master of dissection, entirely comfortable with gaping cadavers. He would not allow anyone to address him as "Doctor." When asked about the reason for this he would respond, "I work entirely with the dead, never the living -- beyond my students who are all of youthful health and vigor -- I heal no one."
Monsieur Vautour was a determined middle-aged lecturer and exemplar of the art of human anatomization during most of The Great War. Many of the dead that he sliced and explored were of the over seven million lost in action or unidentified soldiers. He knew not whether they were from Nebraska or Bavaria. The body purveyors would purchase them for bottles of calvados or baguettes.
Monsieur Vautour was a folk veterinarian and landowner's son from Meetcheele, Belgium. He was schooled in Ypres, seven miles away. This area of Belgium was made a charnel house, a muddy, denuded wasteland during the war. German, Canadian and British artillery churned and tilled the composting bodies of local farmers and young soldiers into the traumatized soil, nurturing poppies. Monsieur Vautour's mother was from Passchendaele, which was all but obliterated. A vibrant crossroads of proud stone Medieval Flemish buildings and gregarious life reduced to small feet and inches. His favorite cousin, Michel, was sown into the Flanders soil by a horribly inaccurate, Australian big gun. He simply was gone. Horticulture was a favorite hobby of Monsieur Vautour in his youth. It had not interested him since the war.
Monsieur Vautour was walking home to St. Germaine a few days before Christmas in 1929. He remembered an unopened letter in the pocket of his coat from a niece in Ypres. He opened it. It was an invitation for he and his daughter and her family to spend the holiday at his niece's "farm" between Ypres and Passandachaele. He had received this invitation every year for the last five or six but would always graciously RSVP in the negative. He had only been home once since the war. However this year was different.
A week prior to receiving the annual invitation Monsieur Vautour was confronted by a favorite student with many questions about Ypres and the war. Specifically he wanted to know if Monsieur Vautour knew anyone that had witnessed the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. The wide-eyed, eager, future doctor had just learned of that miraculous, poignant, ironically beautiful and ridiculous wartime Christmas Eve. Monsieur Vautour knew of no one that had witnessed the event. He did not like to think of the war. He had also not attended mass in many years. He thought, briefly, after the war of renouncing pedagogy, returning to Ypres and practicing medicine, but he knew he was truly ill-suited for maintaining a practice and he would be socially compelled to return to the Church -- Monsieur Vautour continued on as a master of dissection.
As Monsieur Vautour walked on after opening the invitation he recognized an emotion that he had not known since his youth. Although he could not readily name it -- he was sure of the feeling. His thoughts returned to anxiously holding tight a horse's foreleg as his father applied gentian to an abscess and calming himself with thoughts of Paris. He recollected the emotion he felt as a student watching the great Professor Sappey eviscerate the absinthe destroyed carcass of a surprisingly young woman. He remembered the emotion after his first sexual encounter, wishing he had not done it, thinking of his childhood beloved before they had known sexual desire. It was longing. Monsieur Vautour was longing for home, for Flanders.
Upon arriving home he very quickly and cheerfully answered his niece's invitation, accepting it and promising to bring "many wonderful treats" from the markets of Paris. He then walked gaily and rapidly to Mademoiselle Lapin's, the local notary, insuring that it would be posted the following day. Effusively thanking the brooding, taciturn Notaryhe practically skipped the few steps next door to a warm brassiere, enjoying two excellent brandies and a very good local brie with a nice egg yellow brioche.
His daughter regretfully declined his offer of "a true Flanders Christmas, bring only warm clothes and good cheer -- I'll bring my wallet." Truly sad that she and the family could not make the trip with her father, she was also puzzled and a bit perplexed by his uncharacteristic ebullience and generosity -- he was typically more comfortable with the dead. He carried his deceased wife's photo in a tooled silver case, always in the left breast pocket of his jacket or waistcoat. He had not a single photograph of her in his possession when she was alive.
Getting off the train, Monsieur Vautour was anxious and somewhat hesitant at first, he allowed others to go ahead as he composed himself. Stepping onto the platform he became aware of a rush of emotions that he could not control. He thought momentarily of getting back aboard. Then, a large woman wrapped in furs with an equally large ostentatious hat asked him, in English, if he knew the location of the Cathedral and the Market Square. He understood quite a lot of English but could not speak it. He laughed and nodded and, his good cheer returning, uncharacteristically and gently held the woman's arm and directed her to the North end of the platform.
He was unprepared for what he saw. Ypres was the same yet very much different. The canon had very truly assaulted and diminished her, yet she was mostly rebuilt. The spires of the Cathedral appeared to be almost complete. As he was pointing them out a young Belgian man appeared carrying a bundle of travel guides and, what looked to be, maps of graveyards. The large American women laughed loudly, excused herself, and assaulted the young man with a barrage of questions in English. He understood and off they went. Monsieur Vautour was relieved -- he wanted to see his Ypres alone. He thought now of beer. The French had no luck with beer -- Flemish beer was the best in the world.
Monsieur Vautour made his way through the rebuilding medieval city; the Christmas Market was all abuzz. Black Peter, St. Nicholas' Moorish sidekick, was seated at an ornament booth wooing a young woman that appeared a Christmas angel, surrounded by wildly sparkling gold and silver and deep red, a color the French were reluctant or unable to use. Consciously deciding to maintain his good cheer, Monsieur Vautour was glad that he had suggested that his niece meet him at the Three Taverns -- a place of so many memories of early manhood. He sat at a table overlooking the market square, giddily ordering the spicy Christmas beer, Anker Carolus. Monsieur Vautour remarked aloud to himself, "Now Augustin, this is Christmas again!"
When his niece, Cecile, arrived with her husband it was almost dark. Cecile had planned this -- she did not want her uncle to fully see the devastation that remained in the pock marked and the almost treeless landscape. She had remade her cottage in the country, a new medieval Flemish home, just right for a Christmas celebration. The entire family had planted beech, walnut and pear trees. The house was oriented away from a large bomb crater that her husband and his "stubborn, drunken Dutchman" hand were trying to turn into a pond of sorts.
" Zalig Kerstfeest Uncle!", his neice greeted him in her Husband's Flemish. "No, No Cecile, Joyeux Noel!", retorted Monsieur Vautour, grinning like a simple child. "French please", he said as he handed her half of the packages of treats he had brought. "Careful please with that one darling, it contains a very special buche de Noel, very special indeed, made just for you by Monsieur Badeau of rue de Seinne. Yes, and we are so fortunate that I was allowed to keep it on the train porch, this winter has been so very mild, I'm sure it did not freeze." Monsieur Badeau was the proprietor of an ancient patisserie, famous for its Christmas log cake, it was so artfully made that many said the chocolate butter cream icing, applied to look like tree bark, was a skill brought back with Napoleon from the East. Monsieur Vautour was skeptical; pastry was a French invention, however he was not familiar with the culture of the Turks.
Sinterklass had been very generous this year. Monsieur Vautour's grandniece and nephew had received many wonderful gifts on the 6 th of the month. His niece celebrated both the Flemish and the French traditions -- Saint Nicholas would come tonight. The children put water and wine on the hearth, anticipating his arrival. Monsieur Vautour reminded them not to forget the carrot for Saint Nicholas' donkey, "The poor beast will be so very hungry, with many miles yet to go."
After finishing the traditional meal of beer cooked beef stew and a light soup made with the prawns Monsieur Vautour had brought from Paris, his niece, with the help of the expectant children, cleaned the table and started in on the making of the cougnou, a bread made to resemble the baby Jesus, to be eaten with the morning coffee. Mr. Biddles, a houseguest and friend of his niece's husband from their service in the war, asked Monsieur Vautour if he would accept a cigar and partake of it with him, "In the garden, on this bloody wonderful night."
Mr. Biddles, an Englishman, had been in espionage during the Great War. He was an unusual looking man. He had a feline way of moving and Monsieur Vautour commented that he had an almost "catlike bearing" and thought that if he were to open him up he would find, "Hairballs and a most unique skeletal presentation." He was in Flanders this Christmas in search of a woman that he had had a romantic liaison with during the war. He had recently discovered that she had a son. Maybe his.
Monsieur Vautour enjoyed the cigar very much. The Englishman was a good talker. Monsieur Vautour could only nod with appropriate changes in facial expression. Mr. Biddles asked him if he was familiar with, "This man, Hitler, in Germany, apparently a very cheeky fellow and all the rage in Berlin." Monsieur Vautour replied, "My small politics is with Deans and Bursars and disgruntled students, I care nothing for the folly of governments." The Englishman smiled and nodded, "Sorry Monsieur, I have but little French. However, I must say, I'm damn fine in Dutch."
Mr. Biddles finished his cigar and asked Monsieur Vautour if he would like to move back indoors. Monsieur Vautour shook his head and pointed to the newly planted fruit orchard, just beyond the decorated tool shed, at the rear of the house. Mr., Biddles commented, "Very good old boy, although it is a most unusually mild night, I think I prefer the fire just now." The Englishman walked back into the warm house. Watching him go, Monsieur Vautour chuckled to himself, thinking of him as a large gray cat.
Monsieur Vautour very carefully placed the stub of his cigar on the stone window ledge. He would enjoy what was left of it tomorrow. He crossed the mostly dormant garden, stopping to marvel at a row of still vibrant cabbages. The newly planted, leafless, pear and walnut trees brought back memories of childhood. His father had taught him the horticultural art of grafting with a special, very sharp knife, string and beeswax. Although a Walloon, the French speaking Belgians, his father was very much a Dutch gardener. The family garden was always speckled with various varieties and colors of tulips. Looking down at the skeletal shadows of the young trees cast by the gibbous moon, Monsieur Vautour noticed something in the recently turned earth -- something that was bound into his subconscious, a very familiar form -- yet not in a garden.
He anxiously knelt, raking the soil with both hands to loosen the object. His trained mind had already identified the thing, his present mood and company causing him to deny it -- it was a bone, a talus. Though petrified, almost the color of rich chocolate and some of it melted away by time, worms and water, it was unmistakable to his finely trained eye. A human anklebone sparkling very faintly in the Christmas Eve moonlight like stained ivory. His heart began to race and his hands trembled. He recognized another shape close by, another bit of bone -- a broken phalanx, a finger bone. He rose and started to walk, unsteadily, back to the house. Then, turning he walked slowly through the new orchard, identifying a bit of an ulna, a part of a rib, a mandible. Finally dislodging a jagged black piece of a cranium. He began to weep. Hot, unfamiliar, tears running down his ample cheeks and falling from his graying mustaches onto the anonymous wartime necropolis.
Regaining his composure he walked back to where he saw the first bit of bone, picked it up as if grasping the arm an old friend and placed it in his pocket. His niece called to him from the house, "We are going to sing Uncle, come!"
Upon returning to Paris Monsieur Vautour maintained his comfortable, well-worn routine with the exception of taking time out each day to visit his daughter and her children, bringing them small gifts of candy or pastry. His grandson, Etienne, was growing into a fine, strong athletic sort of child. On an especially bright, cloudless late summer day Monsieur Vautour concluded a lecture on the structure of the esophagus and the nearby musculature and circulatory and nervous systems, quickly ordered his desk and walked the three quarters of a mile to his daughters house on the rue de Rennes. He arrived out of breath asking his daughter if he could take Etienne, "To visit Notre Dame in all its Gaulish Splendor, with those horrid little monsters, seemingly to be waiting unseen to expectorate or hurl some foul insult down from on high."
Monsieur Vautour and his grandson walked the few blocks to the great Cathedral, stopping once for chocolate and once to watch a barge packed with squealing pigs move down river. Monsieur Vautour and the boy walked into the sparsely peopled church without dipping fingers into the holy water or crossing themselves. The church this day appeared to be visited by only tourists and a few devout, elderly Parisian women, their heads covered in dainty black lace, with precious rosaries gently tapping the smooth and worn oak of the pews -- deep in prayer. The grandfather and grandson made their way to a pew mid-way up the nave, seating themselves, neither genuflecting nor lowering the cracked leather padded kneeler. They sat in silence. After sometime Monsieur Vautour noticed that little Etienne was mumbling something under his breath. Was the little fellow praying? Monsieur Vautour looked up at the bloody, torn man on the gilded cross, gently tightening his grip on the polished bone fragment in his pocket, hoping, for the little boys sake, that a Christ was listening.
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Merry Christmas and Peace On Earth To All