Prose for Van Orley: Max Urai

Authors on paintings. BOZAR asked 5 writers to choose a work from the exhibition Bernard van Orley. Brussels and the Renaissance and inhabit one of its characters. Max Urai chose The Battle of Pavia. Attack on the French Camp and Flight of the Besieged.

© Museo e real Bosco di Capodimonte - Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali
© Museo e real Bosco di Capodimonte - Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali

Too Old for a Dramatic Goth Phase

Outside the town wall and ahead of the greyhound that is trembling like a horizon, there are brambles, thistles, moss and chive, unnaturally sharp-edged pieces of flint, cow parsley, the strands of ivy that cling to the wall like mummified millipedes. The dog is imitating luggage in my arms. Every time it hits my leg, the bunch of keys makes the sound of laundry being beaten dry on rocks. We walk out of town in the Italian light.

The familiar noise of steel. After a three-month siege, silence feels like a threat. My parents only told me that my maid was dead when I asked them what time she'd come to help me put my hair up. Her mother had carried her body through the streets, wrapped in the same sheet she had fallen asleep on. My mother saw her when she was walking through the town herself, trying to find someone with some wool left to repair her socks.

The friar and I had studied all the war stories in the Bible and had started on pagan texts. He told me that the siege of Troy was a famous story, but that Euripides was the first writer to explore the fate of women in wartime. More than usual, his comments sounded as if he were repeating someone else's insights. He followed the lines of the text with the tip of his quill while reading. I tried to hear the women behind his voice. Above all, the author seemed to admire how well, how nobly, they suffered.

I kept all these thoughts to myself. Everything I do and want has been determined for me by others, but my internal life is my own. The horses that are still alive are walking along behind me, bending their necks to the roadside where, without stopping, they chomp on twigs with their egg yolk-yellow teeth and tug them loose with a jerk of their necks. Two sisters, cousins of mine, are sitting on one of the family's carriage horses. Perched on the load strapped to the other, their parrot is looking around stupidly and cheerfully. And who am I? Hecuba, mothering her fellow townspeople? Poor Cassandra? Helena, sharp and quick as a swallow?

In the background, a lance is penetrating the small opening in the neck of an armour, destroying the person inside. Red and brown blood flows into the mud. I'm walking in front because I want to be the first to see this. I struggle with everyday life, but here, I become one with the world. This is the home I have been building inside myself for years. Anyone wanting to know how she should feel can follow my example. I can't remember ever being calmer than now. I walk in front, mustering all the focus I can. Look at me. All the sorrow of the world is inside of me. Look at me. I am young and radiant.


Translated from Dutch by Vivien D. Glass

Max Urai (1991) lives and works in Leiden. Alongside writing fiction and essays he makes programmes at the Amsterdam poetry house Perdu, is part of the editorial team of Tijdschrift Ei, writes reviews for De Reactor and stares at the wall...

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