in the land of splendid umbrellas

by dm gillis

In the Land of Splendid Umbrellas, they welcomed the rain. When it fell, it gave them reason. Nearly everyone had his or her own splendid umbrella and they lived to flaunt them. It was considered a citizen’s duty. Spontaneously, and wherever possible throughout the land, they’d form proud processions in a downpour. They’d move slowly and with a grand rhythmic fluidity, an assembly of vibrantly colourful canopies flowing with the citizenry inconsequential beneath. Miles long pageants here and there, each rolling harmoniously. Seas of rich and vivid bobbing amid the glistening rainy-grey gradients. It was a diamond conceit of a golden prosperity.

But not everyone could or would own a splendid umbrella. There were those women, men and children who, living in vile poverty, were forced to make do with only drab umbrellas or no umbrellas at all. They sat on wet curbs, with chins in their hands, watching the rain induced processions of splendid umbrellas passing them by, wishing ever so strongly that they could join in but knowing the drabness of their dime store umbrellas excluded them completely.

There were also those who refused to conform to the prideful vanity of the multitude and would not own any umbrella at all. They heaped derision on the snooty majority of splendid umbrella bearing citizens and called them fools for being taken in by those who were made wealthy through the sale of splendid umbrellas. These nonconformists were people assumed to hold extremist views and were considered a rabble on the fringe. And among them was a certain Mr Balthazar Strange.

Mr Balthazar Strange was an old and crooked man. But his was a crookedness earned through honest hard work, not imposed by outrageous nature. He was a stone artist and, for a living, artistically and meditatively stacked stones, some of them very heavy, atop of one another. He relied upon the generosity of the passing public and cranky patrons. He had frighteningly wild and uncontrollable hair and a nose that slanted slightly to the left, it having been broken in a fall from a Christmas tree in his childhood. He wore eyeglasses with tiny blue lenses and a tattered army surplus greatcoat with indecipherable regimental flashings. On his head, in a hopeless attempt to control his frighteningly wild and uncontrollable hair, he wore a formless cap that may once have been red with what might once have been a teal green coloured feather in the hat band.

But before you presume his gnarled and shabby appearance had anything to do with his distain of splendid umbrellas, or any umbrella for that matter, please read on.

In fact, Mr Balthazar Strange had once loved splendid umbrellas as much as any man. He had a dazzling collection and was unfailing in his observation of meteorological forecasts and trends.  He carefully watched the sky for rain the way a pastor diligently watches his congregation for sin and transgression. And when the rain came, he would be the first in the resulting parade of splendid umbrellas, flashing this or that splendid umbrella from his collection, to the delight of all who proceeded with him, and all who looked on from the periphery.

But irreparable change can come over a man if circumstance allows and for Mr Balthazar Strange, the circumstances did most definitely allow.

It happened in The Year of the Drought. The one that came after The Year of the Comets but before The Year of the Toad Invasion. Sadness gripped the Land of Splendid Umbrellas. By the time September rolled around, not a spot of rain had been seen anywhere. Once, in May, there was a report of possible rain in the east but it was soon found out to be a cruel rumour started by a consortium of umbrella retailers hoping to improve their seriously declining sales. When found out, they were tried, found guilty, pilloried and pelted with state approved organic compost.

Mr Balthazar Strange was sad, too. Without rain, he had no reason to exhibit his magnificent collection of splendid umbrellas. The sun shone bright day after day. And though some wondered if they might use their splendid umbrellas as parasols, no one dared to be the first to suggest it. A group of museum curators proposed a splendid umbrella museum, a place where splendid umbrellas, once so popular and so essential to the national identity, could be preserved and displayed in the most up to date environmentally controlled setting possible and thereby be made available for future generations to view and ponder over. But it was a disappointing idea that smacked of failure so it was rejected.

Eventually, November in The Year of the Drought arrived. The sun was shining brightly, as it had all year long. Mr Balthazar Strange toiled long in the quarries and on stony beaches creating stacked stone sculptures for anyone who cared to see them. There were large pointy stones placed points down and precariously balanced upon roundish plinthy egg shaped stones. Some went meters into the sky like vertical stony totems, others resembled long trains of stones, successions of perilously balanced stones that twisted and traversed the surrounding topography. They produced a palpable energising tension and altered conventional concepts of permanence. Passers-by observed and wondered and dropped coins into Mr Balthazar Strange’s once red cap.

All through that November, weather prognostications were grim with sunshine. It was to last well into the Christmas season, not even any hope of snow to set the festive mood. People in the Land of Splendid Umbrellas grieved. They wondered how processions and parades could possibly proceed without rain and the resultant spontaneous opening of their splendid umbrellas. Mr Balthazar Strange continued his stony endeavours throughout this turbulent and uncertain time until one day, while on the beach below a seawall surrounding a park, he was confronted by a park ranger standing above him on the wall.

“News rules, mate,” said the park ranger, perhaps too self-importantly.

“New rules?” said Mr Balthazar Strange; his throat was dry and his whistle needing wetting. “And what, pray, are they?”

“No more stone stacking without a license.”

“Really?”

“Yes, you’re earning a living from this stacking of stones, you see. People put money in your grubby little cap. So, you are running a business and a business must be licensed. Otherwise you’re just begging, aren’t you?”

“Really?”

“Yes and responding to everything I say with the word really will not change that in any way.”

“Really?”

“I am willing, however, to give you a break this one time,” said the park ranger. “But you must cease and desist your stone stacking immediately, proceed to City Hall and purchase your license.”

“And what if I do not cease and desist?” said Mr Balthazar Strange, looking up at the park ranger through his tiny blue lenses. “What if I continue in spite of you and your new and absurd law? I have patrons and my public, you know. They will rally behind me. I have the history of art successfully triumphing over the bland and artless establishment on my side. What do you have, other than your torture chambers and gulags?”

“Look, it’s only a fine.”

“Then write your ticket and I shall tear it to pieces before your very eyes.”

“Hey, lighten up. I’m not a bad chap. I’m just doing my job.”

“You’re a blunt oppressive weapon of the state,” said Mr Balthazar Strange, his hackles rising. “You, sir, are a stooge, ignorant of your true place in the family of man, persuaded by your overlords that you are their equal. But you are not. You’re a slave to the despotic and tyrannical hierarchy that dominates City Hall, a once honourable institution.”

“Alright then, mate,” said the park ranger, pulling a pad out of one the many pockets situated round his official park ranger walking shorts. “You want to make this personal? Then I guess I will write that ticket, after all.”

“Paahhh!” laughed Mr Balthazar Strange dryly. “I mock you.”

“Mock away,” said the park ranger jumping off the seawall onto the beach. “Let’s see some ID.”

Mr Balthazar Strange was aghast by this. “People know me by my art,” he said. “I am no Petite bourgeoisie; I do not carry identification.”

So, the park ranger spoke into his two way radio mic. What he said was mostly muffled but Mr Balthazar Strange distinctly heard the words we have a live one here. And in a very short time a police cruiser arrived.

The police officers exited their cruiser slowly and with bored looks on their faces. It appeared they wished to convey that, as a result of their infinite policing duties, they had already seen too much of life and may not be in the mood for more. They consulted with the park ranger for a moment and then turned to Mr Balthazar Strange. “Givin’ this fella a hard time, are you?” said one of them who looked the senior.

“If anyone’s being given a hard time here,” said Mr Balthazar Strange, “it’s me.”

“You have a license to stack those stones?”

“Of course not,” said Mr Balthazar Strange. “Did Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci require a license? Did Vincent Willem van Gogh require one? Did Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech? Of course I don’t have a license and why should I?”

“Let’s see some ID.”

“I have none and if I did I certainly wouldn’t show it to you.”

Now the senior officer spoke into his two way radio mic and, among other things, he said the words mental male.

“What?” said Mr Balthazar Strange. “Mental male?”

“Right Rembrandt,” said the officer now off his mic, “hands behind your back.”

“I will not,” said Mr Balthazar Strange and stood his ground.

The two officers didn’t wait. They moved in and tackled Mr Balthazar Strange. They wrestled him to the sandy ground in his tattered army surplus greatcoat with indecipherable regimental flashings. But Mr Balthazar Strange fought back valiantly, spitting and swearing. As it turned out, a life of artfully and meditatively placing one stone atop of another had made him very strong, indeed, and a worthy opponent. It took the two officers several minutes to finally subdue and handcuff Mr Balthazar Strange.

But this was not all that made this a singular day. For when the officers stood up, cursing and brushing sand and tiny bits of flotsam off of their uniforms, the park ranger excitedly yelled, “Look.” And he pointed to the west where a bank of low cloud had suddenly appeared. There was clearly a slanted torrent of rain falling two to five miles offshore and rapidly heading in toward land.

“Right,” said the officer who had not yet spoken, bending down and picking up Mr Balthazar Strange by the arm. “Let’s get this miscreant in to headquarters.”

Mr Balthazar Strange was placed in the back of the cruiser but not before making the complaint, “But wait! The rain is coming! If you take me in now, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss my first opportunity in nearly a year to join in on a procession of splendid umbrellas.”

“You should have thought of that before,” said one of the officers and closed the cruiser door on Mr Balthazar Strange.

It turned out to be the only three and a half days of rain that year. And the drought lasted several months into the year that followed. It was fortunate for many, as it was a Friday when the rain began; it was the weekend. And since it appeared to forecasters that the rain might last until Monday night, a national holiday was declared making it a long weekend.

Almost the entire population of the Land of Splendid Umbrellas enjoyed the long weekend. But Mr Balthazar Strange sat in a windowless jail cell waiting to stand before a judge. And since it was late on a Friday before he was squared away, and because judges don’t work weekends, he waited the whole of Saturday and Sunday and the add-on Monday, as well. All across the Land of Splendid Umbrellas there were spontaneous and joyful parades, processions and pageants of people displaying their splendid umbrellas. There were celebrations, carnivals and mass merriment. And this all took place everywhere except in the jail cell where Mr Balthazar Strange sat.

On Tuesday morning, Mr Balthazar Strange stood before a judge and was convicted of artfully and meditatively stacking stones without a license, resisting arrest and broadcasting generally wearisome bombast in a public place. But since he had missed the only rain of the year and, as a result, missed the one and only occasion to flaunt one or more of his splendid umbrellas, his long weekend in jail was considered punishment enough and the judge sentenced Mr Balthazar Strange to time served.

Mr Balthazar Strange was embittered, nonetheless. The state had imprisoned him and held him unjustly while the entire nation celebrated. As he languished, his splendid umbrellas sat in his rooming house room undisplayed and unenjoyed. So, upon arriving home from court, he gathered his entire collection of splendid umbrellas and placed them in the thrash. Whether they were taken away with the rest of the rooming house garbage or pilfered by locals and passers-by, he never knew or cared to know.

In time he became a cynic and an illicit unlicensed stacker of stones. His work remained artful, meditative and relevant but it was done in the dark of night or in the weakly lit hours of dawn when police and park rangers were either in bed or securely installed in doughnut shops.

The clandestine nature of Mr Balthazar Strange’s work seemed to make it more popular than ever. But one day, no one can say which, it ended and the rent on Mr Balthazar Strange’s rooming house room stopped being paid. He was somehow gone from the world. And because stones stacked artfully and meditatively never stay that way for long, no record of the existence of Mr Balthazar Strange remains.

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