Authors: Kim Devereux
He reclined on the pillows. âOur house. I came to it but it was deserted because we no longer owned it. Still, for some reason I tried the door and it was open so I went inside.'
Had he said
âWe'd moved out long ago and yet all our things were still there, even things that we'd sold.'
âSold?' I said. But he did not answer, apparently caught up in memories of his dream.
âThen, the floor started to tilt, a vase fell off the mantelpiece because the entire house was at an angle. I had to crawl on all fours to get back outside.' He paused, looking at me. âI did get out.'
It sounded like a nightmare and yet he'd spoken about it as if it had not distressed him at all. But then why had he called out?
âAnything else?' I said, hoping there wasn't so I could go back to bed.
He remained silent for a long time, as if weighing something and finally said, âSaskia was there.'
My hand reached out to the woodwork of the bed and held on to it.
He closed his eyes as if to focus on something in his mind's eye. âShe was on the bed. And even in the dream I knew that she had died.' He smiled. âIt was such a blessing, to be with her for a little while.'
He reclined into the pillows and looked so happy, presumably reliving these moments with Saskia. Perhaps I should leave him, let him fall asleep again. Several minutes passed as he lay there with his eyes closed. I thought of all the portraits of Saskia, decked in flowers. She must have been such a sweet, kind woman.
His breathing was now deep and regular. Was he in a kind of waking dream? Was he still with her? His face looked so different, as if a burden had been lifted. I wanted him to remain this way, even if he never woke again to be with me. Such a strange thought, but that's how I felt just then.
, I prayed,
please let him remain in peace and joy for ever
But as the minutes went by, I noticed the night's penumbra on the walls. He and I were mere shadows compared to how he and Saskia had been. The fact that a dream could bring him such happiness showed how he had felt about the real Saskia. He was living in a lost world â or perhaps not lost, for it would remain alive in his heart until he died.
I was surprised to feel the touch of his hand on mine and mechanically closed my fingers around his. He embraced me.
âThe house,' I said, âthe crack in the wall, is there any chance of it really sinking? And Thijs and the debt â will he force you into bankruptcy?'
He looked me in the face. âNo, of course, he won't, and the house is not going anywhere thanks to Pinto doing the underpinning.' He grinned. âIt will be fine, Rika. I'll pay Thijs but I won't bother with
Pinto. He'll give up on the money sooner or later. I should let you get back to sleep.'
So I kissed him goodnight and made my way back to the kitchen.
The next morning, as I stood stirring the porridge, I thought about everything. He could have asked me to stay with him last night. Ha, that bed would remain his and Saskia's for ever. No wonder he'd never married again. He was still wedded to her. He could not even bear to visit her grave. There was more devotion in that than if he'd decked it in flowers year after year.
The porridge had become a thick sludge. I slopped it into a couple of bowls. Titus was already at school. Only me and Rembrandt in the house.
Outside there was a fog so dense it looked as if someone had obliterated the world. I walked right up to the window until I could see nothing but the rolling vapours. I felt the ground shift under my feet but it was only the fog moving â a harbinger of my future, awash with intangibles.
I went to the wardrobe and regarded my few belongings: some skirts and dresses, a few ornaments and my skates. I reached for a canvas bag; in went a dress, then the old clogs. Last night, by the fire, he'd angled his chair with his back to me. In went my comb and hair pins. On the other hand, he did draw me a few times, and he never drew Geertje. In went my woollen under-things. He'd never marry me. I packed my favourite mug, not caring that it was his property. The gateway to the invisible; another fancy for which I'd fallen.
Better to live some kind of life than starve on dreams. Yes, he'd flickered into life a few times but mostly he was dead â keeping dear Saskia company. I redoubled my efforts, assembling things on my bed to speed up the packing process.
He walked in, staring open-mouthed at my bag and the pile of things.
âWhat are you doing?'
âIt's no use.'
âWhat's no use?'
I carried on.
âWhat are you doing?'
He tried to take the bag out of my hand but I pulled it back and continued filling it with my endless socks and stockings.
âBut Rika,' he said, âis it something I did?'
âBut you must have a reason?'
âMust I? Find me another bag. I am out of space.'
He went off to find one. I was both pleased and put out by his compliance.
âIs it because I can't marry you?'
âOh,' I said straightening my back, âI did not realize that such a notion existed, even if only as a rejected notion.'
âMarriage,' I said.
âWell,' he said as if we were talking about buying runner beans, âI did consider it but I'd have to pay Titus's share of Saskia's inheritance to her family. It says so in her will. And I don't have the money.'
I shrugged my shoulders. Nothing had ever prevented him from doing what he wanted. I thought of the stacks of prints he'd chosen to collect instead of dealing with this âsmall' impediment to his personal freedom. There was only one explanation: not-being-married was exactly how he liked to be.
I went upstairs to the linen room where I kept some sheets that were mine. He followed me.
about marriage then? A piece of paper is meaningless.'
âNot to Geertje, it wasn't,' I said, âand not to most men and women either. Only to you.'
I regretted having given away how I felt, for now he'd answer back and I wanted to get out as quickly as possible.
âIt made no difference to Geertje's rights,' he said. âAs you were privileged to witness, she got what she wanted, married to me or not.'
âIt was a privilege I could have done without, and I don't think being locked up in a Spin House was what she had in mind.'
âWhy are you dragging that up again?'
âSo inconvenient, I know.'
He swished his hand through the air as if to cleanse it of what I'd said. âAnyway, Rika, Geertje's got nothing to do with any of this .Â .Â . and I love you.'
The words had slipped out, which made them harder to ignore. I stared at the pile of folded sheets in the cupboard, trying to remember what I was doing. My sheets were hard to tell apart from his. Had he really said he loved me? I pulled out the whole stack of linen and looked through the packets of white.
âWhen you arrived in the house; it was only the second day and you were sitting right there on the floor. I nearly fell over you coming in and there you were with glowing hair.' He gestured with his hand as if this was the self-evident explanation for everything that had occurred between us.
I'd finally found the two worn sheets that were mine. Perhaps love and truth did dwell in those junctures, but there'd been precious few of them. I bagged the linen and descended the narrow stairs again, with him still following. When we reached the kitchen I put the linen bag next to the other bag and rummaged for some candles in the cupboard. I'd never wake in a new place in the dark again.
When I got my head out of the cupboard, he was standing there holding my two bags and then he made off with them. I followed him down the corridor into his bedroom.
When I caught up with him, the bags were on the floor and he stood next to them, chest puffed out like a town crier.
âI want you to stay with me,' he said, taking my hand. âWill you always share this room, my bed and my life as my wife, not in the eyes of the Church but in my eyes and the eyes of the world? I know I've been .Â .Â . obtuse, obstructive, obstreperous. Whatever you want to call it. Not very helpful and forthcoming, anyway.'
I stared at him, feeling like the participant in a piece of theatre, but I was moved. In fact I had to take my eyes off him to gather myself. The swirling fog was blanketing the high windows of his bedroom. He wanted me to stay as his wife, but not his wife. Was there a difference between the non-wife I had been and the non-wife he proposed I could become? I thought of Daniel amongst the lions, of his hands that met so tenderly as he communed with his Maker. Could I trust and have faith, that very way that he himself could not? I'd have to live without the certainty that resided in the habits, morals and beliefs I'd relied on all my life. And he did not seem to understand the vulnerability of unmarried women.
âI'm not the fool you think I am,' he said, as if he'd been privy to my thoughts. âI will look after you and any children we might have.' He raised his right hand. âI vow to that. Please.'
Before I could say anything, he opened the big wardrobe. âWill you help me choose some old things to throw away to make space for yours?'
He stood back, pointing at the five or six doublets he possessed.
I knew at once; the badly cut doublet I'd detested ever since I'd known him. It was the colour of pus and completely threadbare under the arms, because he wore it virtually every day. I pulled it from its shelf and held it up. His face was a picture of injury before he made an effort to conceal it.
âAll right,' I said. âI can see you love the thing.'
We both stood there for a moment then I held it to my nose.
âHmmm, it smells better than it looks. Perhaps we ought to keep it.'
âThere is no need for you to part with anything. I can continue to keep my things in the kitchen. I'll only want to put my nightdress somewhere.'
He nodded and opened one of the packed bags, knowing exactly where the nightdress was. He took it out and then, carefully refolding it, placed it in the cupboard on top of one of his nightshirts.
Then we carried my things back to the kitchen and I unpacked again.
When they retired for the night, he let Rika go up the stairs ahead of him. She hesitated at the door and looked at him over her shoulder. He smiled encouragement and she lifted the latch. It did not escape him that she glanced up at the peep-hole as she walked in. An unwelcome reminder of the past. Then she opened the wardrobe and took out her nightdress.
âI'll let you change,' he said and went into the studio to put on his nightshirt. He'd have to live by his promise now. When he returned, she was in bed, lifting the cover for him to get in. He felt happier now that he could feel her. She was lying on her back. He put his arm under her neck and she turned towards him and they embraced. Her face lifted to him and soon they kissed and he was lost. It was so instant. No doors between them now. But his mind
took him away again: the canting floor, the dream. The box bed sliding towards the wall. And Saskia in it. Trapped.
âShe was in the bed.'
âWho?' Rika looked at him, confused.
âSaskia. I should have saved her.'
âYou couldn't have, she was too ill.'
âNo, in the dream, I mean she could not get out. She called for me to help her, but I just ran away, trying to save myself.'
Rika was nodding, but how could anyone comprehend his sin.
Her hands were on his back, brushing in little circles, like his mother used to do. But he hardly felt them â as if he was clad in thickest leather. And then, suddenly, he was bare. Her fingers vivid on his skin. And not just on his skin, but reaching deep inside, infusing blessings into his secret sorrow.
He did not deserve this. And now she whispered, âHave some heart for yourself. I love you so.'
Then, to his embarrassment, he sobbed. He tried to stop but couldn't. Wretched sounds, unabating, from his throat, while her hands held his heart in perfect grace. As if he'd been forgiven.
And then he cried like a madman. She stroked his hair, and he felt perfectly safe â as if death was just another tomorrow.
He let his head fall in her lap, abandoning himself. His arms around her hips, his mooring. He looked up at her â she was so pristine, so new. He brushed his palms up and down her back to welcome breath into her lungs. She sighed and then she smiled at him.