Authors: Kim Devereux
He came up behind me. âWhy have you opened the door? We'll turn into icicles.'
âBetter than being smoked like eels, look!' I pointed at the plumes.
He shrugged his shoulders. âAll right, what shall we do?'
âPut out the fire and go to the anteroom,' I said brusquely.
We settled ourselves in the anteroom. Me cocooned in several shawls and him with a blanket on his legs. He'd fetched his drawing things and was working now. I stared at the empty fireplace and felt even colder for watching it. My teeth started chattering. He looked across at me. âYou're really cold. Come and get into the guest bed â you'll catch your death otherwise.'
He lifted the blanket up for me. I crept in and he tugged it tightly around my body. âThere,' he said smiling at me, âyou'll warm up soon.'
In an instant my annoyance was gone and I found myself holding on to his sleeve. He looked at me, an expression on his face almost of fear. I did not let go. He remained where he was, neither pulling away nor coming closer.
âJust help me get warm,' I said.
His elbow softened and he came under the covers with me, lying on his back. He smelled of smoke. I looked at his pale face. It seemed to me that by entering this guest box bed we had entered a different world. He opened his right arm, an invitation. I lay within it and moved closer against him, putting my head on his shoulder. I felt almost at peace now. We lay like this for a long time. Then I grew restless; why did he have to lie there like a dropped acorn? I gave up waiting and closed my eyes. Then I felt his head incline towards mine and come to rest against my forehead. I put my hand on his heart. I felt it beating â so fast as if he was fretful. I propped myself up on my
elbow and kissed his temple. I thought of my older brother Harmen and how he'd sung a song to help me go to sleep when I was a child. So I started humming the tune and then the words came and I sang as softly as I could:
When our ship sails the sea to a faraway land
We lie there sleeping, love holding our hand
The waves come so softly, rocking to, rocking fro
Now sleep little baby, for there's marvels to come
I've watched the horizon all day for your sails
I know it is coming for the wind blows so sweet
His eyes remained open, blank, staring at the black ceiling of the box bed, but then his lids sank lower and closed. I wanted my voice to carry what calm I had so he could rest.
I pray you may sleep until you are home
I pray you not suffer the tiniest storm
When we're together we'll sail once again
The waves gently rocking, our two hearts to one
As vast as the ocean, till all else is gone
When I reached the end of the song, I started again but singing ever more softly, as if the air itself could be lulled to sleep. He turned on his side, his back to me, his body relaxing and then his breathing
changed to the slow, deep breaths of sleep. I lay down beside him and soon fell asleep too.
The carriage took us ever closer to Bredevoort. I had written to my mother, unsure what to say about Rembrandt. In the end I'd told her that we'd got to know one another and it was his heartfelt wish to visit my home and meet my family. It was the truth as far as I knew.
He had hired a coach and man for the journey. We were sitting side by side on the leather seat being jolted against one another. If he intended to ask for my hand in marriage surely he would have said something to me by now. Or perhaps out of decorum he wanted to meet my mother first. Given the debt he was in, it was hard to see how he could provide for a family, but then again he'd lived with the same debt for over a decade and was paying me wages nonetheless. At least I'd be seeing Harmen.
I kept looking out of the window. The entire land was dissected by small dykes which bordered the newly drained polders. Without the dykes the land would be flooded again. So much audacious effort for so little earth. Most of the Low Countries were below sea level and yet we thought we could wrest every ounce of it from the waters.
I'd grown up amongst the waterlogged plains and was sad to see them changed. Water always found the lowest point â it would win back the land one day. I wondered about seeing my mother. My memory of her was like a faded drawing.
There were the fortifications of Bredevoort already, clawing the air. We thundered over the wooden bridge across the moat and through the city gate and we were amongst the tall, narrow houses which huddled together within the confines of the city walls. We passed the soot-blackened church tower which stared down on everything with its clock-face. The wheels rattled over the cobbles. Not far now. I clasped my hands together.
He continued to look out of the window, his usual unbothered self. I tried to do the same. My stomach started to gurgle. The wheels continued on.
After some final directions from me, we arrived outside the small timber-framed house of my birth. It looked old and weathered and the trees in the garden had grown huge. The thatched roof needed renewing. He offered me his arm as I climbed out of the carriage. The fur-trimmed collar made him look rich as a merchant. I'd never seen him wear this particular garment before. I wanted to feel pride in him, as I would be entitled to if we were married. For my own dress I had vacillated between wearing modest black from head to toe or a loose-fitting burgundy jacket with a white shift underneath and black skirt. In the end I'd chosen the more colourful attire. It was a special day after all â at least I hoped it would be.
We walked towards the door, which had been repainted the colour of green bile. An ill-judged choice, unless van Dorsten meant to induce nausea in his visitors. Rembrandt knocked. The bilious door receded and there was my mother, smiling. I'd been prepared to see some grey in her hair but not the stoop that bent her back.
Her eyes wandered from me to Rembrandt and he bowed saying, âMevrouw van Dorsten?'
âYes, and you must be Mijnheer van Rijn. Please come in, be heartily welcomed.'
We stepped inside. She kissed me briefly and then Harmen's arms were around me. Before I knew it, he'd lifted me up but stopped short of swinging me around in a circle as he had done when I was a little girl. When he put me down I noticed how low the ceiling seemed and how small the windows were compared to Rembrandt's.
Then I was formally introduced to the children even though I of course knew them all, having lived next door to them less than a year ago. There were the two boys of four and six and a girl of seven. While saying their names my mother touched their heads, stroking their hair. They all had an unfortunate likeness with their father. Even the girl had his bony chin and pokey blue eyes.
Van Dorsten signalled to the children by a wave of his hand that they were to return to their play. They ran to a corner of the room which was full of playthings: a horse without a head and some wooden farm animals.
We seated ourselves on chairs, except van Dorsten and my mother who took to the settle in a way that made me think it was their accustomed seat. How frail he looked, like a starving pigeon, well into old age. My mother appeared less old now that she was sitting next to him.
A maid entered the room and started furnishing everyone with cakes and boiled apple water. Rembrandt turned to van Dorsten.
âThank you for your kind welcome. If I may ask, now that the war has ended, has there been an impact on the garrisons of Bredevoort?'
Van Dorsten launched into a long description of the decline of the local garrisons. My father's clock was still there, ticking, and there was the chair I'd sat in for so many hours doing lacework. I could not understand why my mother was sitting so close to van Dorsten â there was plenty of space on the settle. At one point their hands were even resting against one another. I was getting impatient with Rembrandt, who was holding forth about his investments, the art trade and how prices failed to take into account the true value of art.
My mother's eyes met mine, a question in them.
Then Harmen asked, âSo how have you been? How is life for the two of you in Amsterdam?'
âGood,' I said, feeling awkward. âThere's much to do. The workshop is busy.'
They'd start asking further questions now. We should never have come. If there was a time to announce his intentions, surely this was it.
âI must see the garden,' I said, already on my way out.
Everyone looked surprised, but Harmen got up and offered to accompany me.
The yew tree had been my refuge as a child. I climbed it and Harmen followed wordlessly. Despite my cumbersome skirts I managed. Soon we were many feet up, sitting comfortably on thick branches in the dark green cave, sunlight sparkling through the gaps between leaves.
âI missed you,' I said.
âI missed you too. Why did you not visit sooner?'
âI did not want to see our mother with that man.'
Harmen nodded. âIt was all too soon after Father's death but you must not be too hard on Mother. It's better she's with someone than on her own.'
âHm,' I said, âI suppose it is.'
âShe needed something to do,' said Harmen.
âMarriage is an excellent remedy for idleness,' I said.
He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. And then he said, âI've seen how he looks at you, he cares.'
âOh,' I said, âdo you think so?'
âYes, it's obvious,' said Harmen. âAnd do you care for him?'
âYes,' I said, âyes.'
âI thought he was about to announce your engagement when you got up.'
âWell, yes.' He studied me. âThat's why you're here, isn't it?'
I hesitated. âI don't know.'
Harmen looked first puzzled and then worried.
âBe careful, won't you?' he said.
I nodded. Thinking that
was probably not the best way to describe my conduct.
We sat in silence for a while, the wind fanning the branches. I
remembered seeing caterpillars once in another tree in the garden and having a little reverie about a metamorphosis so complete that one remembered nothing at all of one's former life. Perhaps complete and utter change was best. I should have stayed in Amsterdam.
Harmen was the brother I was closest to and even to him I could not be truthful. We sat in silence for a little longer and then returned.
On a whim I went upstairs and slipped into the room where my father and my mother used to sleep. There was the old box bed and the large cupboard. I could hear laughter from downstairs. I opened the cupboard. It was filled with van Dorsten's clothing but at the bottom stood my father's leather boots. When I was a child, upon coming home, he would pretend he could not get them off until I helped him pull at them. The leather was dry and brittle now â it was surprising that my mother had bothered to keep them.
I heard footsteps so I quickly closed the cupboard. It was my mother.
âWhat are you doing here?' she said.
âI've been looking for you. Amsterdam has done nothing for your manners, just running off like that.'
âLet us go back downstairs then,' I said.
âWhat's he come here for?'
I shrugged my shoulders, trying hard not to say,
Why don't you ask him?
âI thought you'd come to announce your engagement?'
I wondered whether I was the most angry with her, with Rembrandt or with myself.
âHendrickje, have you become his whore?'
âOf course you have. Look at you. Those colours.'
âI choose my own wardrobe these days.' I had not come to fight with her but it was inevitable.
âHow hard I tried to instil God's tenets in you .Â .Â .' She raised her hands as if to heaven.
I had the strange urge to run to my father as I'd often done in moments like this. But there was no one to redeem me now. If only I could take the boots with me, I thought. But if I asked for them she'd know something of how I felt.
When we returned to the drawing room van Dorsten and Harmen were smiling at an impromptu sketch Rembrandt had made of the big-bellied widow who lived opposite. He rose, offering me once again his arm and we stood there framed by the window with all eyes on us. My hope rekindled that this might be the time. But Rembrandt just stood smiling, patting my arm. Then we took our leave. As my mother came closer to bid me goodbye, it was as if the lines in her face prefigured the ones that were to come in mine.
She was tired, yes. She'd lost a husband. At least she'd cared enough about him to keep his boots. Harmen was right; it was good she had van Dorsten.
I reached out and held her hand in mine â but when I sensed her discomfort I let it go again.
We rattled back over the cobbles, past the church tower in silence. My metamorphosis was incomplete and perhaps that's how I'd remain. I sat as close to the window and as far away from him as I could.