The miniaturist, p.15
The Miniaturist, p.15Jessie Burton
What will it mean, for the rest of her life, married to this pleasure-loving, complicated man – but without a marriage bed? Johannes will include her in his social gatherings, his guild parties and feasts. He even wants to be her friend. But there will be all those endless nights of loneliness, those daytimes filled with longing, as love is sealed up for good. She hopes the miniaturist sends her something soon. The fear of what it might be is worth the distraction alone.
Nella twines two of the periwinkles behind her ear. She has never envisaged a lifetime of being untouched, and yet deep inside, a tiny voice rises to be heard. You’re relieved he isn’t going to do it. She admits the shock of witnessing Johannes naked. Since arriving, a great part of her has urged, even attempted, to transform herself into what she has long assumed is a real wife, a proper woman. She has spent so long craving this transformation, solidifying it in her mind, she has become oblivious to its ambiguity. Now, the proper woman loses all her meaning. Nella’s solid desire is fragmenting, a mist inside her head. What does it even mean, to be a real wife?
A knock on the door rouses her from the wandering circle of her thoughts. ‘I’ve asked Otto,’ Cornelia says, peering her head round the door. She hesitates at the sight of Nella’s puffy eyes. ‘He didn’t leave the window open, and it wasn’t me—’
‘I’m not blaming anyone, Cornelia.’
‘He might fly back.’
‘He won’t. I was a fool.’
‘Here,’ Cornelia says, proffering a parcel inked with the sign of the sun. ‘It was left outside for you.’
Nella’s blood sings. It’s as if she hears me, she thinks, even when I’m silent. What is she trying to say?
‘Was it – Jack who delivered this?’ she asks, her fingers trembling lightly on the package, desperate to pull it apart.
Cornelia winces at the name, her eyes on her mistress’s shaking hand. ‘It was there when I went to wash the front step,’ she says. ‘I dare say that Englishman’s keeping away. Madame – what is in these parcels?’
Nella knows she is not ready to share the woman on the Kalverstraat. Having rejected the idea of privacy, now she craves it, desperate to be alone with what the miniaturist has to show.
‘Nothing. Pieces I’ve ordered for my cabinet,’ she says.
‘You may go.’
Once Cornelia has left with one last glance over her shoulder, Nella tips out the package on her bed. Nothing prepares her for what she sees.
Eight dolls are laid out on a strip of blue velvet. So lifelike, so delicate; they are items of such humanly unreachable perfection. Nella feels like a giant, picking one up as if it might break. Johannes lies in her palm, a cloak of dark indigo slung over his broad shoulders, one hand balled into a fist. The other hand is open, palm offered and welcoming. His hair is longer than Nella has seen it, reaching just below his shoulders. Dark-eyed, the shadows on his face make him look weaker than he is in real life. At his waist is a heavy bag of coin, nearly the length of his leg, and he is thinner. The bag burdens the joints in his hips, weighing him crookedly to one side.
The hair of Nella’s own doll escapes its cap, as in reality it is wont to do. Wearing a neat grey dress, her miniature stares straight up, a look of faint surprise across her frozen face. In one of her tiny hands is an empty birdcage, its door swinging open wide. Nella feels a strange sensation in her body, as if pins are pricking the inside of her skin.
In the doll’s other hand, is a minuscule note written in neat black capitals:
THINGS CAN CHANGE
Unable to look any longer at her miniature self, Nella moves on to Cornelia, marvelling at the maid’s blue eyes, which appraise her with a hint of merriment. Cornelia’s hand is raised to her face, and on closer inspection, it appears she has her finger to her lips.
Otto is next, his hair made from dyed lamb’s wool. Looking more agile than Johannes, he too is thinner than in real life. Nella touches his arms; his simple servant outfit belies the carved muscles underneath. Her fingers spring away. ‘Otto?’ she says out loud, feeling foolish when the doll does not reply.
Then comes Marin, her grey eyes fixed on some invisible horizon. It is undoubtedly her – the slim face, the solemn mouth holding a thought desperate to burst. Her clothing is accurately sombre; black velvet, a capacious plain lace collar. Mesmerized, Nella runs her fingers up Marin’s thin wrists, her slender arms, the high forehead and rigid neck. Remembering what Cornelia told her about the secret, softer lining of Marin’s sober clothes, Nella feels beneath the bodice. Her fingers light on a fine pelt of sable.
Good God, she thinks. What is happening here? For this is further than the miniaturist has ever gone. A little gold key, a rocking cradle, two dogs – these could all arguably constitute the pleasant aspects of life in a merchant’s house. But this – these dolls – are different. How does the miniaturist know what Marin wears against her skin, or that Peebo has flown away?
You thought you were a locked box inside a locked box, Nella tells herself. But the miniaturist sees you – she sees us. Tracing a shaking finger over Marin’s skirt (what looks like the best black wool on the market), Nella hides her sister-in-law’s doll in a far corner of the miniature salon, behind a chair where no one can see her.
Next out is a male figurine, slightly shorter than Johannes, wearing a big brimmed hat and a sword, dressed in the livery of the St George Militia. His face is large, and despite the reduced articulacy of his full-barrelled body, it is quite clearly Frans Meermans. Agnes follows, with her waspish waist and rings on her fingers made from tiny shards of coloured glass. Her face is narrower than Nella remembers it, but the familiar seed pearls are dotted in white on her black headband. A large crucifix hangs round her neck, and in one hand she holds a conical loaf of sugar, no longer than an ant.
The eighth and last doll falls from the velvet cloth, making Nella cry out. Picking him up from the floor, it is plain to see Jack Philips, his leather jacket and white shirt with spilled cuffs, his legs encased in a pair of leather boots. Hair wild, mouth a cherry red. Why would the miniaturist want to remind me of this awful boy? Nella wonders. Why must I have him in my house?
No answer comes from the dolls, who stare up at her, such powerful diminishments. Nella tries her best to look calmly at these characters, lying on their velvet cloth, made with care and observation. She places them one by one in dark corners in the miniature house.
Surely there is no malice in them? She tries very hard to convince herself – but this is something that seems to go beyond the normal, there is a commentary here she cannot place her finger on. It is more than plain mimicry.
There is one black cloth parcel left, smaller than the others. Nella barely dares to open it, but the impulse is too strong. When she unwraps the cloth she thinks she might be sick. Lying there is a miniature green bird, looking up at her with bright black eyes, his feathers real, purloined from a less fortunate creature. His tiny claws are made of wire and covered with wax, and can be manipulated to perch anywhere.
Her world is shrinking, and yet it feels more unwieldy than ever.
She whirls round – is the miniaturist here in the room, hiding under the bed? Nella crouches to look, pulling the curtains away from the wall in a quick sweep as if to catch her unawares, even looking behind the curtains on the cabinet. All she finds are empty spaces that mock her desire to believe. You’re Nella-in-the-Clouds, she reprimands herself – you with your fancies and your imagination running wild. You were supposed to leave that Assendelft girl behind.
Through the window, people are walking along the path. The Herengracht is busy today, for ice has prevented easy travel on the canal. The herring-seller is stamping her feet on the corner to keep warm, ladies and gentlemen walk with their servants, all wrapped against the bitter cold. A few glance up at Nella as they pass, faces turned like snowdrops towards the winter sky.
Nella looks away towards the bridge. A flash of pale hair, she is sure of it
‘Wait!’ Nella shouts from the window. ‘Why are you doing this to me?’
Someone titters on the path. ‘Is she a lunatic?’ a woman asks. Nella feels the burn of this unjust and awful scrutiny.
But the pale hair has disappeared, leaving both unanswered questions ringing in the air.
Written in the Water
Nella rushes down the main staircase, the new, miniature Peebo jammed deep into her pocket. Her indoor pattens still on her feet, she heads for the front door, but the intensity of Marin’s and Johannes’ voices in the dining room stops her dead. She hovers, torn between going after the miniaturist and listening to the siblings’ storm.
‘You said you would go, Johannes, and you must.’ Marin’s voice is low and strangely raw. ‘I’ve ordered a barge to take you to the harbour. Cornelia has packed you a trunk.’
‘What? I’ll go in a couple of weeks,’ Johannes replies. ‘There’s plenty of time.’
‘It’s November, Johannes! Think of all the pastries and parties that require sugar this season. To go in December will be too late, and the warehouse damp will not be doing that sugar any good—’
‘What about the damp in my bones, hopping from boat to boat in this weather? You’ve no idea of the monotony of greasing palms, the exhaustion of speaking Italian, dinners with cardinals who can talk of nothing but the size of their Tuscan palaces.’
Marin sniffs. ‘You are correct, I do not. But all things considered, it would be – prudent for you – to be away.’
‘Prudent – why?’ Johannes’ voice warms with teasing. ‘What are you plotting when I’m not here?’
‘No plot, Johannes. I will collect my scattered thoughts. And so will Petronella.’
‘I’m tired, Marin. I’m nearly forty.’
‘You were the one who wanted to sell it abroad. And if you bothered to visit your wife’s bed – then in fifteen, sixteen years’ time, you could hand all this to your son. You could spend your dotage in a tavern, for all I care.’
‘What did you say? My son?’
Nella can almost taste the silence which follows. It falls between them, Johannes and Marin in the room and her outside it, like a dense blanket of snow a man might trip in and disappear. She rests her cheek against the wood, waiting. Was that longing she heard in her husband’s voice, or was it merely surprise? How correct had Agnes really been, that night at the silversmiths’? No sure bet, was Johannes’ reported view on heirs. If things can change, Nella thinks, running her fingers over the miniature bird in her pocket – then maybe that means people too.
‘Marin,’ Johannes sighs, breaking Nella’s thoughts, the snow of reverie melted. ‘These perfect lives you’d have us lead, plotted on maps that take us nowhere! In fifteen years I’ll probably be dead.’
‘Oh, I see our destinations clearly, brother. That is what pains me.’
‘If I go I must take Otto with me.’
‘We need Otto here,’ says Marin. ‘Just three women, and no man to lug the firewood? The ice is coming in.’
‘You want to run my business, but you can’t lift a log? In that case,’ Johannes sniffs, when Marin offers no rejoinder, ‘there is only one other assistant I could take.’
‘If you’re even considering—’
Nella barges into the room. It is the first time she has seen her husband since the moment in his office. An expression of pain flickers over Johannes’ face as he rises from his chair, awkwardly scraping its feet across the floor. ‘Nella,’ he asks, ‘were you—’
‘What’s that?’ Nella interrupts, pointing to where Marin is poring over a map.
‘De’Barbari’s map of Venice,’ says Marin, gazing at the petals of the periwinkle nestling by Nella’s ear.
‘Did you have any luck with your parakeet?’Johannes asks.
Nella jams her hand in her pocket. ‘No. I did not.’
‘Ah.’ He pauses, rubbing his chin in meditation, looking at her carefully. He glances at Marin. ‘I have decided I must go to Venice, to set up talks regarding Agnes’ sugar.’
‘Venice?’ Nella echoes. ‘Will you not be here at Christmas?’
‘I cannot guarantee it.’
‘Oh.’ To her surprise, Nella hears the feather-breath of disappointment in her voice. Marin looks up.
‘We thought it would be best,’ Johannes says.
‘For the sugar,’ he replies.
‘For all,’ says Marin.
As Marin intended, Johannes boards the VOC barge from outside the house. It will take him towards the docks, where he will board his ship. Standing on the threshold of the house, Nella shivers as he holds up a reluctant hand towards her. She mirrors him, her own palm facing the cold air, not waving, just held in goodbye.
‘You put the flowers in your hair,’ he says.
‘I did.’ She takes in his sun-tanned skin, the grizzled lines around his eyes, the sweep of silver stubble. ‘For restoration.’
At her words, Johannes seems unable to speak, and in that brief, held moment between them, Nella feels as if she has grown taller, as if dignity is something she can grasp in her hand.
Rezeki bounds out of the house, barking her displeasure at being left behind.
‘Do you have the sample loaves?’ Marin asks.
‘My word is enough, Marin,’ Johannes replies, but his words are eliding with emotion.
Who is this man, Nella wonders, so moved by my goodbye?
‘Why don’t you take her?’ Marin says.
‘She’ll get in the way,’ Johannes replies. ‘Just keep her safe.’
Nella prays they’re talking about the dog. Marin sounds so frosty towards her brother, it’s hard to keep up. He’s going isn’t he – isn’t that what she wants? Perhaps the miniaturist will send me something soon to elucidate this strange woman, Nella wonders. The doll of Marin holds no clues. Tonight, she tells herself. Tonight I go to the sign of the sun.
Marin moves slowly back inside, as if the cold has seized her joints. Cornelia scrutinizes her mistress’s halting progress. Standing by Otto, Nella watches her husband’s figure grow smaller as his barge moves up the Golden Bend. ‘Didn’t you want to go to Venice?’ she asks.
‘I’ve been, Madame,’ Otto replies, his gaze on the wake of the water. ‘Once is enough for the Doge’s palace.’
‘I would like to see it,’ Nella says. ‘He could have taken me.’
She catches Cornelia and Otto exchanging one of their glances. As they turn back to the house, the three of them see Jack Philips standing by the higher bend of the canal. Nella’s stomach shifts. Jack’s hands are in his pockets, his hair as wild as ever, and he scowls at Johannes’ vanishing barge. Otto propels Nella back up the steps, and she sags at the contact, letting him guide her, hearing a soft thud behind as Cornelia closes the door.
Outside, the winter night has darkened. The sky is a deep river of indigo, the stars pricked like lights in its flowing stream. Nella sits at her window, the miniature Peebo in her lap. Jack has long gone from his post. Where is Johannes now – will he take one of those mysterious gondolas, will he return to the Doge’s palace? Of course he will, Nella thinks. It’s Johannes. She turns to her cabinet and places Peebo gently on top of one of the velvet chairs. Things can change. She tries not to picture her real bird, out in a night like this, prey to hawks and owls. Perhaps the miniaturist has kept him safe – though from where else did these shortened little feathers come? The thought that the woman would pluck at him and do him harm is unbearable.
It’s time to find out. The Kalverstraat will be freezing at this hour, Nella thinks, pulling on her travelling cloak. And who knows how long it will take to persuade the miniaturist to come outside?
She drapes the small gold key the miniaturist sent around her own doll’s throat, placing her little self neatly on the real bedcovers. ‘I am not frightened,’ she says out loud, turning to see a brief gleam on the doll’s tiny clavicle. And yet, she cannot erase the thought that this gesture towards her miniature is the only thing that guarantees her safe return.
Nella has never gone out after dark in her entire life. In Assendelft, she’d only meet an errant fox breaking into a coop of chickens. The foxes in Amsterdam might take very different forms. Quietly opening her door, she inhales a lovely scent of lavender, diffusing in the passageway as steam moistens the air. The rest of the house is silent except for the sound of slopping water coming from the end of the corridor. Marin, who keeps her secrets like weapons, who wears sable dresses but eats old herring, appears to be having a midnight bath.
A bath at any time of day is a sumptuous thing to do, and Nella wonders at such nocturnal indulgence. Unable to resist, she moves silently down the corridor and puts her eye to the keyhole.
Marin has her back turned, blocking Nella’s view of the bath, which takes up most of the spare space left in her tiny room. Who put it there for her, filling it to the brim with hot water – surely not Marin herself? Her sister-in-law is not as slender as Nella thought she’d be. From behind there is a fleshiness to her thighs and buttocks, usually all hidden under her skirt. Marin’s clothes come before her, they tell the world who she wants to be.
But Marin unclothed is a different creature, her skin pale, limbs long. As she leans over to test the bath temperature, Nella sees that her breasts are not small. Marin clearly straps them down in the most unforgiving corsets. They are fuller and rounder, like they should belong to someone else. That this is Marin’s body at all is oddly unsettling.
Marin lifts a leg into the copper bath, then the other, sliding slowly in as if she aches. Her head leans back, she closes her eyes, the water covers her. She stays under for several seconds, seemingly kicking her leg against the side of the bath before coming up for air. As the dried lavender buds skate the surface of the water and release their scent, Marin rubs her skin until it turns pink.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes