Authors: Kim Devereux
A terrifying noise. It's coming from his chest. A devil's trombone, pummelling him from the inside. And the malevolent thing is vying for control of his breath. It's only with the greatest effort that he gets the bellows of his chest to rise. Air, he needs more air. The drone surges to a deafening roar. His bowels slacken, frightened by his own helplessness. He thrashes the air but there is nothing he can do against the amorphous attacker, except to flee. He gets out of bed, but his knees buckle and he hits the floor.
Another change in pitch â for the better, allowing a breath. But not for long; the pitch changes again. His lungs are paralysed. Breathe, breathe â his lungs don't listen. No heave to suck in air. The door, he has to reach the door. But limbs won't obey. He'll die. He
forces out the last bit of air to produce a scream. Pain, but different, on the outside, sharp. Something has hit the side of his face. He opens his eyes: light, white cloth, his bedroom, Geertje. Silence, apart from his own breathing. A dream, he's had a dream. He is on the floor, panting like a dog. Air so fresh and sweet. She's standing over him. His cheek still stings. She must have hit him, to wake him. He's filled with gratitude. She takes a step back. With her long nightshirt and candle in hand she looks like an angel of either deliverance or doom.
He hauls himself up, at last awake enough to feel embarrassed. He must have screamed, but at least he did not soil himself. Why is she staring at him like this? Ah. She probably fears his wrath because she's struck him. He nearly laughs out loud at the idea. A gust of air sweeps through the open door from behind her, cooling his sweaty arms and bringing her smell to his nose. Unlike her wrinkled brow, it is enticing. He wants more but the air is still.
still asleep; there are no rules in dreams. He moves towards her, eyes half closed. His hands reach out and touch coarse fabric and a hint of warmth beyond. His nose finds the nook of her neck. He inhales the scent. Divine. He sniffs along her neckline, with each breath more and more awake. Wait. She has not stopped him. And if she has not stopped him, she might let him go further.
He pushes aside the obstructing collar and buries his mouth and nose in the nape of her neck, steals a taste of her skin with a lick of his tongue, disguised as a kiss. Her neck arches. He disbelieves his luck, but goes on. Neck, collarbone, shoulder. Her.
He remembers he has hands. They grab and rumple the linen,
finding flesh through fabric. Hips, clutched and possessed. And there, the fat roundness of her breasts. He seizes them, such malleable softness. No matter how he sculpts and holds them, they resolutely resume their wondrous shape.
How lithe she has become. He never would have thought it. Her thighs pressing against him. A message in that. She wants you, you fool. But he still cannot trust this new world; the nightmare still too real to him. He reaches for her, blindly pulling her towards him. They stumble on to the bed or has she pushed him there? Her skin, so warm. Something else makes itself known: Yes, he's feeling
; and his pain .Â .Â . ? He can't locate it anywhere. He
capable of feeling good. Perhaps he can have a life, some kind of life.
He pushes up the cloth of her nightshirt and lets his fingers dwell on her upper thighs, trying to discern their secret workings, the bones inside and the strands of muscles. Yes, they carry, they bear up and now they tremble softly where he's touching them. He wants to do more â merely to worship is not enough. He runs his hands up from knee to hip, over and over again, to where the shock of thick hair beckons him.
Just as he is thinking of laying his fingertips at her entrance, her hand folds around his cock, and he is lost in her frenzied touch.
At last he knows it. She is his. She has given him back the world and by God he would fill it. And then he enters her with all the languor of certainty, almost laughing when she claws at him for more.
Their encounter becomes dedicated to only one thing. It's a smithy of joy. They forge their pleasure, this way and that, folding
it like steel, strengthening it, until it is sharp and bright â so all consuming it at last expunges who they are.
And so the sword comes down and cuts them loose.
Five years later
Bredevoort, Gelderland, Dutch Republic, January 1647
âHendrikje,' my mother shouted through several closed doors, âthe sheets are frozen solid on the line!'
The morning had been so bright and sunny that I'd forgotten it was freezing. I imagined her taking them down and folding them with a crunching sound, angry that I was not rushing out to help.
My hands carried on with the lacework. I felt the bellied bobbins, the wood worn smooth by generations. My fingers crossed two pearly threads in a twirl around one another and then placed them on the side. Twirling, placing, picking up a new pair. The lace on the black cushion on my lap grew like an ice crystal on a window.
My back ached. I'd been resisting the impulse to stop but at last I put the cushion on the chair next to me and let my gaze drift out of the window. I wanted to put my palms on the cool glass. How happy the children sounded outside. They loved the snow. They'd been shouting and laughing all morning. I heard the noise of wagon wheels rattling on bumpy cobbles in the distance and I listened to them until they melted into silence â but still I thought I heard them.
From my seat I could see only a small framed rectangle of sky, the colour of dirty snow.
I picked up the cushion again and returned it to my lap. Why not get up, relieve the strain on my back and readjust the waistband of my skirt? The clock in the corner continued its rhythm â tick, pause, tock, pause â as if it had to inhale before every tick and tock. I glanced at the long pendulum as it swung along its prescribed path. It would never stop; it was wound each day by my mother.
My fingers started again. I watched them. Left, right, left, right, in time with the stupefying ticking of the clock. The timepiece had been my father's pride. It was a rare thing. Everyone else lived by the clock on the church tower. How many more ticks until the collar would be finished? Never; the lace would go on as long as the clock. Tock, inhale, tick, exhale, tock, inhale .Â .Â .
My hands continued blind, as my eyes moved away from the sprawling lace. Those pale blue curtains, I'd hidden behind them as a child. They were still there, ready to shut the world out but no longer capable of concealing me. Why could I never get comfortable? It was always there, the pressure of the waistband, the tightness of my bodice and the hardness of the chair. As a child I'd garnered the nickname Mistress Too-Tight for my complaining.
But I'd adapted to my home like a hermit crab to its borrowed shell. I placed my feet on top of the foot stove and arranged my skirt around and soon felt the warmth rise up my legs. Anything could be endured as long as one's feet were warm.
The light suddenly lifted, causing the silver-threaded cloth on
the side chair to sparkle. I rested my hands. The sun was blazing through the windows so strongly that it made the glass glow; perhaps it would simply melt, flow away and the room would flood with fresh air. I put the heavy cushion aside and got up, enjoying each step that took me to the window.
I inspected the glass. Many tiny flecks of dirt had accumulated there. And the morning sun caused each of them to light up with their own corona, as if they themselves emitted light. Perhaps they did; perhaps it was the dirt that made the world light up. Still, the windows needed a clean and I wanted to clean them, so I fetched a bucket, climbed on to a footstool and rubbed away at the dirt with a cloth, water and vinegar.
After a while my mother came in. I knew her step. I did not bother to turn or stop; we often talked while we worked. I pushed the cloth right into a grubby corner, determined to remove all the grime.
âOur neighbour, Jacob van Dorsten, has asked for my hand in marriage and I have accepted,' she said.
The clock did not miss a beat, but I was left behind, caught in the moment before the incomprehensible news. My father was barely six months dead; how had she and van Dorsten arranged this? I let my arm drop, and looked beyond the glass as if for the first time: ranks of ice-encrusted cobbles, wild-looking children and a bird's nest that must have fallen out of the tree on to the frozen ground.
âI extend my good wishes to you and Mijnheer van Dorsten.' My mouth formed the words well enough but they were so loud, spoken like this against the glass.
âThank you,' I heard her say behind me. âIt will be good for everyone.'
One of the little girls outside was bending over with laughter. Had she heard what my mother had said? Then I started to see where the threads crossed over; he was a widower with three children under the age of five and she was a widow. My brothers and sister had all found occupations near Bredevoort; but there was a single thread left, useless on its own: me.
I turned to face her, trying not to lose my balance on the wobbly footstool. She was still speaking to me. âI'm sorry, Hendrickje, but it's time for you to leave home. You're twenty-one and we will need the space, especially with three little ones to look after. Not right away, but you should make plans to depart for Amsterdam and find work within a few months.'
Then her mouth opened and closed again as if she might say something else. After a few ticks of the clock she turned and left.
I climbed down from the footstool, sat on it and looked at the dirty water in the bucket. Let van Dorsten deal with his windows.
The Supper at Emmaus
Rembrandt's house, Sint-Anthonisbreestraat, July 1647
I arrived at the imposing house with its many windows and red shutters. I ran up the few steps to the front door, lifted the knocker and held it. Once I let it hit the plate there'd be no turning back from my new life. I gave three determined knocks.
The housekeeper, a woman of sturdy frame and resolute airs, opened the door and almost dragged me inside by my elbow. In the entrance hall there were two gentlemen seemingly waiting.
Geertje grumbled, âMight as well take the lot of you up now. I doubt he'll welcome the interruption.' At the same time she was stripping me of my coat as you would a child. Then she gestured at a tray of mugs and a jug of beer on a side table, but as I made to lift the tray, she told me, âWait,' and handed me the jug only. Then she waved her arms, herding us up the stairs like errant sheep.
She followed close behind with the clippety-clop of her clogs and the clanking of mugs on the tray. When we reached the door the gentlemen hesitated and looked at each other. Geertje huffed at the delay and pointed with her chin at the door. One of the gentlemen
took a deep breath, lifted his hand and rapped the door so gingerly that he barely produced a sound.
âEnter!' a voice called from inside.
I feared that all eyes would be on me, but instead our arrival was utterly ignored. Everyone in the big room was motionless, as if we'd walked into a religious tableau of wooden figurines. Three young men were seated around a table, which stood on a little platform. The one on the left had a pale complexion and short brown hair, while the one on the right had long trailing locks and a pointy nose. Our preacher at home always said long hair was a sinful pleasure in a man.
Between them sat a boyish-looking youth who appeared modest despite his long brown hair, perhaps because of his air of quiet seriousness. The other two were gazing at him as if transfixed, while the boy was looking straight ahead at a man who I assumed was the master. He sat a few feet away, leaning forward in his chair. He was wearing a broad-rimmed hat, which partially shaded his face but did not conceal his furrowed brow. I'd never seen eyes so still and intent. He held the boy's gaze as if his life depended on it, or was it the boy who held his?
I moved further into the room and around them so I could see better. The table was decked with pewter dishes, tablecloth, wine and some bread and there were also a few scrunched-up napkins. It was not too difficult to surmise that they were posing for a picture but if they were models why were they wearing grubby working garb and why were the boy and master locked in wordless communion?
The boy was holding the broken bread and there was wine on
the table so it had to be a scene from the Bible and I guessed that he was Jesus and this was the Last Supper, where Jesus breaks the bread and says
This is my body, which is given for you
. I'd always thought it very good of Jesus to atone for everyone's sins.
There was something so beautiful about the boy's face that I too could not take my eyes off him; perhaps it was his expression, so understanding and so feeling.
I prised my eyes away and looked again at Rembrandt. I'd imagined him so differently, but his face was entirely ordinary: broad with a biggish nose. The eyes as alive as the boy's, but the rest of his face was slack, lifeless â as if some part of him was absent. And the boy? His face was replete with what his master's lacked â faith and hope.
Then, suddenly, Rembrandt clapped his hands, saying, âThat's it, boys,' and turned to us. He greeted the two gentlemen and I prepared myself to speak, but he just nodded at me with a smile and I curtseyed, something I'd never done before, but a nod did not seem enough. Geertje stood grinning at me, apparently finding my curtsey very funny.
The boy playing Jesus looked strangely moved, almost to the point of tears. I wondered why and warmed to him, because his every emotion was displayed on his face.
âNow take turns and sketch the scene and don't introduce a mountain of objects, like fruit and tableware â they'll only distract from what's important,' Rembrandt told the boys.
Then he instructed the gentlemen to swap places with the boys
at the table, calling the one with the locks Johann Ulrich, the one with the short hair Dirck and the Jesus-one Samuel. I made sure to remember their names.
The boys settled themselves with their sketching utensils on footstools either side of Rembrandt.
Geertje was gesturing to me to fill the mugs with beer, which I did on a side table. She watched me as if she feared I'd spill it. I piled the empty mugs on the tray, still observing the goings-on. Rembrandt got up and paced around as he spoke.
âWell, boys, what are we going to do?'
âChoose the most powerful moment of the story,' said Dirck.
âYes, we want the viewer to hang with his eyes on the painting like a baby on his mother's nipple.'
The boys groaned at the metaphor.
Rembrandt asked them, âSo which moment would you choose?'
âWhen they finally recognize Jesus at Emmaus,' said Johann Ulrich.
âWith their hearts,' added Dirck.
So, it had not been the Last Supper â I should have realized, I thought.
âWhy that moment and no other?' asked Rembrandt.
âBecause that's when we can show the very strongest emotions on the disciples' faces and by seeing these intense feelings the viewer will be moved the most,' said Dirck.
âQuite right,' said Rembrandt, âperhaps even be changed by what he sees. That's how you conquer the viewer's attention and keep it.'
They all nodded.
Rembrandt seated himself again and he and the boys started drawing. I could not fit any more empty mugs on the tray, nor were there more to fill, but I remained, hoping no one would notice my idleness. Rembrandt sat in his chair, legs crossed, a wooden tablet with drawing paper on his thigh, wearing a well-worn tabard. There was nothing about his appearance or his demeanour that suggested he was a master, rather his authority was bestowed on him. It showed in the way each pupil worked with perfect single-mindedness and in how they glanced over his shoulder, as if his drawing contained all the answers.
person shared in this veneration, for when Geertje saw that I now occupied myself distributing the filled-up mugs, she said loudly, âThey'll help themselves if they're thirsty.'
So I made to leave, bending down to pick up the tray of used mugs. I felt the distinct brush of a hand against the side of my leg. When I looked up, Johann Ulrich's eyes were staring at me with a curious expression, as if he'd posed a question to which he half knew the answer. It was that strange look more than the touch which alarmed me. I turned away and left quickly so he would not notice the heat in my face.
When we were in the kitchen Geertje said, âNever mind Johann.' Did she have eyes in the back of her head? âIf you don't encourage him, he'll soon tire of it, unless you
to encourage him?'
This was not said accusingly but with a smile. I shook my head.
âNo,' she said, âthese boys are not the pick of the crop, drawing
and painting all day. If you'd been here when Carel Fabritius was about, now there was a man worth looking at â despite being a painter. Come, it's time to get cooking.'
I was more than content with scrubbing carrots and leeks â they at least were familiar to me.
Geertje started laying the table with delicate porcelain bowls which had blue dragons snaking around their rims. I'd never eaten out of anything other than pewter, let alone had my soup embroidered with dragons.
âI know,' Geertje said. âHe bought them at a knock-down price. People order china decorated with flowers but the Chinese keep on shipping dragons.' She shrugged her shoulders.
I wondered about a land where dragons were more desirable than flowers. The table was set for three: Rembrandt and the two gentlemen. I'd never served anyone at table before. Geertje lugged the huge
we'd made on to the table. Shredded beef and vegetables were floating in the broth.
âSit down,' she said. âHe's often late â no good letting the food go cold.'
No serving then, I'd have to eat
him. I would not be able to swallow a thing. I remembered being in my teacher's study in Bredevoort along with my brothers, looking at prints by Leonardo, Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt. Our teacher had spoken with the same breathless tone that he normally reserved for the Holy Father: âRembrandt â our greatest artist.' Then his voice had dropped to
a whisper as he described seeing a portrait by Rembrandt at the Burgomaster's house. âIt was as if there was another person in the room. Only by going right up to it could I convince myself that it was only paint on canvas.'
Rembrandt walked in, tossed his tabard on a chair and let himself fall into his seat. He not so much sat as lay sprawled in his chair, arms and legs everywhere. Geertje ladled soup into his bowl, then placed it wordlessly in front of him. I sat with my hands in my lap. He leaned forward and sniffed the soup. âMmm,
, just what is needed.'
Then he turned to me. âSo what do you make of our city?'
âIt is a well-organized warren, Master,' I said, immediately thinking how rude I was.
âAh yes, it is certainly expanding at the rate of a warren.' He chuckled and I looked down. âAnd there's no need to call me “Master”, you're not one of my pupils.'
I nodded, but what was I supposed to call him? At least I had not begun eating yet. It would have been mortifying without the prayers having been spoken. But he immediately started spooning soup into his mouth. How immoral not to thank the Lord for one's food. There was nothing to be done about it except to say a little prayer in my mind. Then he and Geertje discussed what purchases to make as if they were at the market. How could they eat and talk at the same time? At home we'd always eaten in silence. I tried to keep my eyes off the contents of Geertje's mouth.
A little boy with golden locks, about six years of age, burst into
the room holding something small and dead in his hand. Rembrandt picked him up and threatened to squeeze him flat as a pancake, much to the boy's delight. âThis is Titus,' Geertje said, soup almost dribbling from her chops. âAnd this is Hendrickje,' Rembrandt said, pointing at me with his index finger.
Titus greeted me and said, âI found a dead bird on the way to school but they wouldn't let me bring it in and show it to the other children.' He shrugged his shoulders in incomprehension, the poor thing still dangling from his hand by its legs.
âOh.' I was as usual at a loss for anything to say to a child.
Geertje hugged and kissed him too and he seated himself next to her, putting the bird on the table by his bowl, which did not seem to bother Rembrandt or Geertje in the slightest. From then on she talked to Titus incessantly, captain of the voyages of his spoon through the soup. âNow that big chunk of carrot, no, not the beef again, now for the swede.' Any sign of mutiny was quelled with a reminder that rice pudding awaited the successful captor of the floating vegetables.
I kept my head down but could not help glancing at the master when I thought he would not notice. His hair was a light brown, slightly curly, and he had a moustache which was the only appealing feature he possessed. It was neither too slight nor fluffed out to ridiculous proportions. It was in truth just right.
When he had finished, he declined the rice pudding, saying he'd better get on with things in the studio; the pupils were gone now and he could get down to proper work. On his way out he kissed
his son again and turned to me. âHendrickje, I hope you'll soon feel at home.'
âThank you, Master,' I said.
He said to Titus. âI'm sure Hendrickje would love to see your bird.' Was there a grin behind his innocent expression?
Titus put his spoon down and enthusiastically grabbed the bird by the neck, holding it in front of my face. It was a sorry little thing, a young blackbird. I presented my cupped hands because, dead or not, I could not bear to see it being held by the neck like that. Titus laid the bird on my palms. Rembrandt came closer too.
I said to Titus, âLook, it's grown a lot of its proper feathers already but I don't think it was ready to fly.'
âWhat happened to it?'
âIt must have fallen out of the nest in a storm.'
âWhy did its parents not save it?'
âThey couldn't get it back into the nest but they might have tried to feed it on the ground.'
âSo why did it die then?'
I looked at Rembrandt for a clue as to whether to divulge the horrible truth. He nodded, so I said, âThey need the warmth of their siblings. It probably died of cold.'
âI have no brothers or sisters either,' said Titus, and poked the nail of his finger into the beak, trying to prise it open. Then he asked hopefully, âDo you think it's got maggots inside yet?'
âProbably not yet,' said Rembrandt and knelt down on one knee, so his face was level with the bird in my hand. His grey eyes set upon
it, his irises moving only ever so slightly as he studied the bird, feather by feather. I hoped my hands wouldn't tremble. His face looked different closer up, coarser. So many lines that I could not make sense of. Too many lines. He had lived too much, making him look more worn than he should. He approached the bird with his index finger. I thought he'd start poking it like Titus had but instead he brushed gently over the bird's neck and shoulders, his eyes still fixed on it, as were mine. The feathers glistened where he'd smoothed them. And then I saw; they were not black or rather the black was made up of many colours. How had I not noticed until this moment? The blackbird might as well have been a bird of paradise for how it struck me now: a parade of amber, brown and black and countless shades in between were visible on each tiny featherlet.