Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


 "The Wrath of the Zuyder Zee" by Thomas Alliborne Janvier (from his collection In Great Waters, 1901; first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1899)

This is the story of a curse and of a love gone wrong.  

For those not familiar with the geography of The Netherlands, the Zuyder Zee is a is a shallow bay of the North Sea, located in the northwest of the country and extends inland for some 60 miles.  It has a depth of about 15 feet.  It has been the scene of a number of historic floods over the centuries.  The story takes place on the Zuyder Zee island of Marken sometime near the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Old Jaap Visser was viewed as a madman, ridiculed by the youngsters of the village and treated with some grudging and distant respect by the townsfolk, for it was felt that Old Jaap had the power of "laying a strange binding curse."  While out on his boat fishing one day, his wife stood near the shore and was swept away, then, a month later, his fishing net caught something -- it was the body of his wife.  By the time he came back to shore, he was mad.  At first the madness was mere melancholy and because he needs must make a living for his child, he kept his boat and returned to sea.  His daughter grew and eventually married, but her husband soon deserted her.  Angered, Jaap laid a curse on his son-in-law, "May you perish in the wrath of the Zuyder Zee!"  And he did.  In the ensuing years, Jaap had been angry at times to threaten to lay his curse on someone or another, but he never uttered the words.

Now living with Old Jaap was his granddaughter, Marretjie de Witt, a quiet, gentle young woman who was much-loved in the town, kin part because her personality seemed opposite to her grandfather.  One who had been a great tormentor of Old Jaap was Krelis Kess, a forceful, strong, and daring young man.  So it was strange to the townspeople that Krelis was changing his ways and becoming fast friends with Old Jaap.  Perhaps not so strange because Krelis had his eye on young Marretjie.  Krelis had been loosely attached to Geert Thyson, a strong earthy woman who was much more like Krelis that Marretjie.  But Geert had a sharp tongue and after a row with Krelis, he walked away and turned his attentions to Marretjie.  Geert believe that Krelis' attention to the other woman was just a smokescreen and that he would soon come back to her.  That was not to happen because the two became engaged.

They say opposites attract.  That was certainly true in the case of Marretjie.  She loved Krelis as much as any woman could and was determined to make his the best wife and to give him a good home.  Krelis, in his way, loved Marretjie, but Krelis' way cared little for his wife's feelings.  At the marriage banquet, Krelis shocked the town and humiliated his wife by having the first dance with Geert.  And wouold spend Sundays -- his only day away from fishing -- at gthe local bar with his friends.  Still Marretjie loved him and slaved to please him and she was happy for the first six months of the marriage, but by then Krelis began ignoring his wife and would often not even come home on Sundays.

All this changed when Marretjie bore him a son and Krelis became devoted to Little Krelis and (once again) to Marretjie.  But the baby took more after his mother than his strong father, and died when only a few months old.  And it was not long before Marretjie was placed in an adjoining grave.  

Then came the stunning news that Krelis would marry Geert, not two months after burying his wife.  the townspeople felt this was the match that should have made in the first place,  but were scandalized that it should happen so soon.  Also upset was Old Jaap, who finally uttered his curse on Krelis.  On the December day that the marriage was to take place, there was a violent storm, causing many to not go to the wedding.  The marshes were flooded and soon the entire town was under water except for a few high places such as the cemetery and several of the little "villages" scattered throughout Marken.  The hearty revelers who showed up for the wedding were not deterred.  The celebration went on and so did the storm.  Krelis was anxious to take his bride home and when there was a lull in the storm around eight o'clock in the evening, he and his bride set out in a rowboat over the flooded areas to his house, which was still standing.

As soon as they set off, the storm intensified, raging in a way that would do justice to King Lear.  The waters began to eat away at the high ground, the now weak earth of the cemetery crumbling the ground around the caskets.  The small rowboat was rocked by the huge waves and crashed into a coffin that floated by in the swirling tempest.  In the distance, Krelis' fishing boat broke its moors and was swept out to the deep.  The ground eroded around his house, causing it to fall into the Zuyder Zee.  As Geert hugged her new groom tightly, another coffin rose in the waves, opened, and crashed into the rowboat, releasing the body of Marretjie, who crashed into the newlyweds and drove them into the water.

Janvier infused his story with a great sense of place and time but reserved the most powerful writing to describe nature's fury.  "The Wrath of the Zuyder Zee" is an interesting tale, immensely readable despite its foregone conclusion.  There are a few niggling questions that were overlooked in the narrative, such as, what happened to Marretjie's mother.  We are not not told and she just vanishes from the narrative without any explanation.  But the power of the story remains.  In my mind, it would have made a great EC horror comic of the 1950s.

Thomas Alliborne Janvier (1849-1913) was a Philadelphia-born writer and historian.  He was married to noted artist and educator Catherine Ann Drinker. In 1881, they moved to new York and became part of the literary and art scene there. Later they travelled to the American West, Mexico, and France, each of which provided fodder for their individual works; while in France Drinker translated many of her husband's works.  Janvier published some 18 books from 1884 and 1914; the FictionMags Index lists nearly 100 stories and articles by Janvier, including a seven-story series about Mr. Beverley, which, from their titles, appear to be an early form of humorous science fiction. 

"The Wrath of the Zuyder Zee" is available to read online in Janvier's In Great Waters.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You really live in the Past! I'm always intrigued by any story, movie or novel with the word "Wrath" in it!