A Woman’s Place
by Josh Pachter and René Appel
Art by Laurie Harden
It’s quiet beneath the trees, quiet as the grave. Ans Moen sits at her bedroom window and looks out at the deserted courtyard. Not a soul in sight. The tourists who infest this odd little patch of Amsterdam during the daylight hours are long gone. Many of the courtyard’s residents resent the tourists. “They stare at us like we’re animals in the zoo,” they say. But there’s not much to be done about it: The Begijnhof is listed in just about all of the guidebooks to the city’s attractions. It has become a hotspot—although the residents would never use that word. They are too old to be familiar with such contemporary expressions.
Built in the fourteenth century, the Begijnhof was originally a nunnery, and its residents were known as the begijnen. Today it is a community of elderly women—widows and spinsters—administered by a board of trustees. Many of Amsterdam’s residents would love to live here, but there are a limited number of houses and the selection process is complicated, designed more to keep women out than let them in. Those women who are selected as residents are considered extraordinarily fortunate.
Unlike the majority of her neighbors, Ans Moen loves them, the curious tourists. To her, the Begijnhof is exactly like a zoo, but not in the way her fellow residents see it: To her, the tourists are the apes, and she can’t get enough of their antics. At this time of night, though, the zoo is closed: The entrance to the courtyard is locked at five p.m. But she sits in her second-floor window all the same, just in case anything else of interest should happen below. She watches her neighbors’ comings and goings with an eagle eye: who’s visiting whom, how long do they stay, what are they wearing, what goodies do they carry in or away?
“You’re such a busybody,” Rietje de Klerk from across the stone walkway once accused her. That was back when they were still on speaking terms. Rietje had been her best friend, but since her brother Peter passed on some eighteen months ago, Rietje has closed herself off from the world. She doesn’t leave her house, has groceries delivered once a week. Sometimes Ans can make out her shadow in the darkened foyer when she cracks open the front door to accept a delivery. The death of her only remaining relative has robbed her of her spirit, and she no longer maintains contact with any of the Begijnhof’s mostly elderly residents. Such a shame to lose a friend, but it is what it is and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Earlier this evening, Ans watched a favorite television program, an episode of a British detective series. The
English countryside is so beautiful, so peaceful, so friendly. It would be lovely to live there, she thinks. And yet there seem to be an unusual number of murders in the vicinity—though the criminals are always discovered, thanks to the clever detective work of two intelligent, personable policemen. Halfway through each broadcast, she writes her guess as to the killer’s identity on a piece of paper. Tonight she got it wrong. How could she possibly have suspected the vicar—such a charming, understanding man!—of a double murder? A year and a half ago, before Rietje withdrew from the Begijnhof’s society, they would often watch these crime series together. They made a game of it, competed to see who could spot the guilty party first. Ans usually won, and Rietje grumbled good-naturedly each time she was defeated.
Those were good years, when she and Rietje saw so much of each other. Cozy evenings in one house or the other, chatting amiably over a pot of tea and a plate of spice cookies.
Ans has never been able to understand why the death of Rietje’s brother struck her friend such an insurmountable blow. They were close in age, she knew, but they had never been close in the way siblings are supposed to be—hadn’t seen each other for decades after Peter emigrated to Suriname in the sixties, had only reconnected on his return to the Netherlands just before his death. But when she learned of his passing, Rietje had turned her back on the world and become a hermit. Easy to do in a bustling metropolis, but harder in the oasis that is the Begijnhof, which is practically a village, where everyone knows everyone else.
Ans sighs deeply and takes a last sip of her mug of warm milk and honey, which she drinks every evening before bed because she fears she won’t be able to sleep without it. According to Jet Schilders, the health-service nurse who stops in to check on her twice a week, the milk is much better for her than a sleeping pill. The pills can be addictive, Jet has cautioned her.
Glancing out her window, Ans, to her surprise, sees a figure slipping into Rietje’s house, though all the lights are out. It must be someone with a key to the Begijnhof’s en-trance, someone with nighttime access to the courtyard. But she can’t even identify the visitor as male or female. There is a lamp on a tall pole just outside Rietje’s door, but the bulb went out several days ago and hasn’t yet been replaced. Ans has complained about the broken bulb to Gerrit Rombach, the courtyard’s administrator, but he has not yet taken action. This is strange, a late-night guest. It’s eleven p.m., and Rietje never welcomes company anymore, not at any hour. Ans knows she’s right about that, since she remains stationed at her second-story post for the lion’s share of every day.
For a moment, she feels a twinge of jealousy. Rietje no longer wants to interact with her, but apparently someone else is welcome in her home, even at this late hour. She’s aware, Ans is, of the rumors, the gossips who claim that So-and-So in number such-and-such is visited by a man from time to time. But Rietje? No, if there was ever a classic spinster, it’s Rietje de Klerk, who has never been married, never even engaged. Her only living family member was her brother Peter, and now even he is gone. Ans can’t imagine who tonight’s caller can be—but of course it’s impossible to peer into another being’s soul. “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” she murmurs, her voice barely audible despite the quiet of the night.
Rietje’s house remains dark. Ans decides to remain at her post until the unknown visitor leaves. For a while, her curiosity holds the upper hand over her increasing drowsiness. Who could be visiting Rietje at this hour? How long will the visitor stay? Not the whole night, surely? She keeps her gaze focused on the front door of her neighbor’s house. But there is nothing there to see. She yawns. It’s eleven-thirty. But she refuses to give up.
Jet Schilders locks her bike and opens the door that leads from the Spui into the Begijnhof. She relishes the twice-weekly transition from the hustle and bustle of the city—with its traffic, its obstacle course of pedestrians and other bicyclists, all scurrying to and fro—to the peace and quiet of the courtyard. She pauses for a moment before the English Reformed Church. Sometimes she even comes here on her days off, for Sunday mass or an hour of chamber music on a weekday afternoon.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, she visits the Begijnhof in her professional capacity, checking in on several of the frailer residents who need a nurse’s care. On other workdays, there are other stops on her route: another courtyard housing the elderly, an assisted-living facility, a nursing home. Today she’s running a little late. Remembering the previous evening, a shiver runs up her spine. Erik had stayed much later than usual before finally slipping back into his clothes and returning to his wife. Erik. A feeling of warmth floods through her as she thinks of him. She tries to be rational about their situation: Erik is married, and the chance that he’ll leave Marjon for her is basically nil. But even the slightest possibility fills her with hope.
She rings Ans Moen’s doorbell. For years, Mrs. Moen has had difficulty walking, thanks to her arthritis. It takes a while before the old woman opens the door to admit her.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” says Ans.
Jet looks at her wrist. “Quarter past eight,” she says. “I’m not very late, am I?”
“No, no.” Ans turns away and struggles down the hall to the living room couch, even more slowly than is usual for her.
“What’s wrong? Did you fall?”
“No, I’m fine, dear. But Rietje—you know, Rietje de Klerk, across the path, she’s . . . last night . . . and then the telephone.” Ans seems panicky. She can barely find the words she needs to explain herself.
Jet perches on a plain wooden chair across from her. “It’s all right,” she says. “Take a breath and tell me what’s going on.”
“This morning,” Ans begins, then collects herself and starts anew. “This morning I called Rietje. She lives right across the path.” She points back up the hall through the closed front door and across to Rietje de Klerk’s house. “She didn’t answer. I tried three times, but she didn’t answer.” Ans seems desperate, on the verge of tears.
“Maybe she’s not home. Maybe she’s visiting her family, or she’s gone out to the shops.”
Ans shakes her head stubbornly. “She doesn’t have any family. And she never leaves her house. Never. And there’s something else.” She lowers her voice to a whisper, as if afraid of being overheard. “Late last night, someone went into her house.”
“How do you know that?”
“I—happened to be looking out my window, and I saw.”
“Happened,” says Jet, and the repetition of the word is ripe with irony. Even in the dimness of the room, whose one window is curtained, the nurse can see a blush steal over the old busybody’s cheeks. “Go on.”
“The strange thing was that Rietje’s house was completely dark. Even after the stranger went inside, there wasn’t any light.”
“So Mrs. de Klerk had a visitor,” Jet repeats. “In the dark.”
“Yes, and I didn’t see him—”
“Him?” Jet interrupts. “You’re sure it was a man, not a woman?”
“Well, no, I’m not sure. But whoever it was . . . the visitor, let’s say . . . the visitor never came out. At least, I didn’t see him—or her—again.”
“You watched the house all night?”
“No, I fell asleep in my chair.” Ans looks embarrassed by this confession. “I woke up again about three. And then I went to bed.”
“That was probably the best thing to do.”
“And then this morning I called Rietje on the phone, three times, but she didn’t answer.” Ans Moen’s watery eyes are frightened. “I’m afraid something’s happened to her.”
“What could have happened? You ladies are safe here, safer than in the Royal Palace on the Dam.”
“Can’t you go over and check on her, Jet?”
“Why don’t you go yourself?” Jet doesn’t want to get involved. Mrs. de Klerk isn’t one of her patients. Her dance card is full for today, and she doesn’t really have time to add another item to the list.
“I don’t dare to, Jet. Please?”
“All right, then, fine, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Jet crosses the path to Rietje’s house. She can feel Ans’s eyes watching her from her usual perch at her bedroom window. She presses the doorbell labeled “R. de Klerk,” but no one responds. She rings again, and still nothing happens. These poor old women, she thinks. It’s bad enough when their bodies begin to betray them, but worse when their minds start to go. Their vision fades, they draw weird conclusions, start seeing ghosts.
She punches the bell a third time and holds the button down for a good ten seconds. There is no response. She turns to go, but changes her mind and pushes lightly on the door. To her surprise, it swings open. Apparently Mrs. de Klerk has forgotten to lock up after her late-night visitor’s departure. She moves into the foyer, feeling like an invader. She checks the kitchen, then the living room, but there’s no one there. She notes that all of the drawers have been pulled out of the writing desk in the living room, their contents strewn across the threadbare carpet.
“Anybody home?” She feels a little foolish calling up the stairwell. Her voice echoes strangely in what is obviously an empty house.
She waits. . . .
Copyright © 2017. A Woman’s Place by Josh Pachter and René Appel