Last night I dreamt I went to Urk again. Have you ever been to Urk, wide awake or in your dreams? You would surely remember if you had. Urk is a unique place, a tiny Belgian exclave oh! so high in the Alps. More precisely, it is an exclave of the province of Flanders, though its tiny population includes a tiny proportion of Walloons.
Urkites are known to state, with pride, that “nothing ever happens” in Urk. That is largely true. It is so tiny, and so high above sea level, in contrast to the rest of Flanders, that very little of note has ever occurred there. Its official history, available from the kiosk in the street (both singular), runs to a four-page pamphlet printed in very big type, one-and-a-half pages of which consist of advertisements. And the pages themselves are tiny! Just as the kiosk is tiny and the street is short.
Urk never signed up to the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, so visitors – if there are any – still need to show their passports at the frontier. This is a chalet at the foot of the funicular railway which climbs up, up, up, at dizzying steepness, to the village, where the air is thin and the police officer is idle.
As one alights from the railway, one is thrust almost immediately into the heart of Urk. This is the village square. It is a patch of well-tended lawn, with a flowerbed rife with tulips, and a tiny concrete statue of tiptop Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. It is here you will also find, slumped on a bench, at all hours of day and night, the Blind Goose-Killer of Urk.
When the exclave was founded, by a smattering of Belgian tuberculosis patients over a hundred years ago, it was decreed that only one person in Urk was permitted to kill a goose, and that this person must be blind. All the other laws governing the territory were imported wholesale from Flanders. The origins of the goose-killing edict are obscure, and may have resulted from a misunderstanding. Whatever the case, there has always and forever been a designated Blind Goose-Killer in Urk. It is a lifetime position, one of great honour but paltry reward.
What happens is this. Let us say you are in Urk and you wish to make a goose die. You must go to the bench in the square and rouse the Blind Goose-Killer, who is probably dozing. You introduce yourself, presenting your identity papers, if you are an Urkite, or your passport, if you are a visitor. The Blind Goose-Killer cannot, of course, see these documents, but will enact what is known as “the sniffing and the rustling of the pages”.
You must then state, in Flemish, that you wish a goose to be killed, and ask the Blind Goose-Killer to kill the goose for you. Almost invariably, and while still half-asleep, the Blind Goose-Killer will accede to your request, although once in a blue moon, or if in an ill temper, or if bilious, he or she will refuse. Assuming the answer is positive, you must then go and fetch the goose you want killed.
You hand the goose to the Blind Goose-Killer. Apart from blindness, another characteristic shared by all who have held the position is the possession of a pair of hands with eerie, vaguely inhuman musculature. Once in the grip of these hands, the goose cannot escape its fate. You could say its goose is cooked, though that introduces a second, putative, abstract goose, which is one goose too many, and may serve to befuddle the Blind Goose-Killer, so is best left unsaid.
As soon as it has been strangled, you take the dead goose from the Blind Goose-Killer and offer your thanks. Although they are in receipt of an annual stipend from the burghers of Urk, you should give them some loose change as a tip.
As I said, last night I dreamt I went to Urk again. It was a disturbing dream, more of a nightmare. The entire tiny exclave was overrun with living, honking, dazzlingly white geese. And there, on the bench in the square, was slumped the Blind Goose-Killer, torn and bloody and lifeless. He had been pecked to death.