The miniaturist, p.16
The Miniaturist, p.16Jessie Burton
The damp curls at her neck look girlish, unbearably vulnerable. Before her on the shelf next to all the books and animal skulls, Nella spies a small bowl of candied walnuts, gleaming like jewels in the candlelight. She cannot remember a single time Marin has publicly eaten a fritter, a waffle or bun – nothing, except Agnes’ sugar which she could barely swallow. Has Marin purloined these from the kitchen – has Cornelia colluded in her mistress’s secret appetite?
It is just like you, Marin, Nella thinks – to hide candied walnuts in your room and criticise me for loving marzipan. Sugar and herrings – Marin’s commodities beautifully define her infuriating contradictions.
‘What have you done?’ Marin suddenly asks the air. ‘What on earth have you done?’
Marin seems to wait, looking into the nothingness where no answer comes. Nella keeps her eye to the keyhole, terrified that the folds of her travelling cloak will rustle too loudly. After a while, Marin gets out of the bath with some difficulty, drying each leg and arm slowly. She looks well fed for someone who eats like a bird, who tells the world she denies herself the pleasures of sweets. Dressing in a long linen shift, Marin sits on her bed to the left of the bath, scanning the spines of her books.
Nella cannot draw her eyes away. Gone are her sister-in-law’s perfect skirts, her black stomachers, the white half-haloes of her headbands. Now Nella knows what lies beneath; she is witnessing the skin. Marin reaches out, pulling a piece of paper from one of the books. It is the love note, Nella is sure – and now Marin is shredding it into tiny pieces until there is no paper left, just white petals spilling on the surface of the bath. Then she puts her head in her hands and begins to weep.
Seeing her like this should make me feel powerful, Nella supposes, as Marin’s sobs flood her ears. Yet even now she eludes me. Like her idea of love, Marin is best witnessed in the chase – for caught like this, she is even more ungraspable. How would it feel, Nella wonders, to have Marin’s trust, to take this pain from her and help extinguish it?
Suddenly saddened, Nella turns away. That will never be. The naked intimacy of this moment pulses through her, quelling the desire to face the outside dark and cold. She wants to sleep. Tomorrow, Nella tells herself. For now, she will take up her smaller self from off the bedcover, garlanded with the golden key, and place it back in the cabinet.
As Nella draws her cloak close and heads towards her own room, a shadow shifts near the top of the stairs. The back of a foot, a heel aloft, gone into the darkness again.
The Boy on the Ice
A dead body has bobbed to the surface of the Herengracht, a man without his arms or legs, just a trunk and head. Men hack at the ice to remove it as Marin watches, hiding herself behind the front door. The canal is a year-long dumping ground and as it solidifies with the cold, past deeds rise to be scrutinized by the rest of the city. Johannes’ absence stretches into its second week, and more prosaic items emerge as the water freezes harder; broken furniture, chamber pots, ten kittens in a tight and pitiful circle. Nella fantasizes about warming them up, watching them come alive again, the torture they suffered nothing but a dream. When the authorities carry the man’s body away like a severed haunch, Marin predicts that his murder will remain unsolved.
‘These things were done in the dark in order to stay there,’ she observes. Nella can almost smell again the lavender of Marin’s bath. Marin seems distracted, looking out of the windows, wandering through the rooms.
Alone in her own room, wrapped up in two shawls, Nella holds the doll of Jack Philips in her hands. It seems easier to do this, now Johannes is away. Jack has a physical springiness and his leather coat has been tooled beautifully. Nella pulls lightly at his hair, wondering if wherever Jack is, he can feel the ache on his skull. It seems possible. I hope he can, Nella thinks. A feeling of power rushes through her, a desire to destroy. Resisting, but exhilarated, she returns him to the top of the cabinet house, where he lolls to one side.
Outside, enterprising street-urchins skate on the frozen canal, their light bodies no threat to the new ice crust. They remind Nella of Carel, skidding and sliding, whooping in joy. She opens the front door, hearing them call to one another – Christoffel! Daniel! Pieter! Nella steps out, instinctively searching the sky for a beloved flash of green, but there is none.
One of the skaters is the blind boy, the one who stole from the herring-seller the first day Nella arrived. The others call him Bert. Bert looks underfed, but seems at least to enjoy the reprieve the skating gives him, swooping around with his friends. Nella marvels at the way he skates as fast as the rest – one arm out, ready for a fall. The slipperiness of the environment is a great leveller. He skates off, up the unending frozen beam of light.
Every time Nella plans to go to the Kalverstraat, Marin finds something for her to do. Nothing has been delivered since the dolls and the miniature Peebo, and Nella finds herself impatient. Johannes has been away two weeks when December arrives, and she declares she must go and buy her family some festive gifts. She goes shopping through the Amsterdam streets, choosing a Milanese riding crop for Carel and a China tulip vase for her mother, items to tell the tale of a successful merchant’s wife. But on the Street of Buns with Cornelia, shopping for the tastiest gingerbread for her sister, she looks around constantly for a pale blonde head of hair, those cool and watchful eyes. Nella almost wants to be spied on. It would make her feel alive.
She wants to go to the Kalverstraat, but Cornelia contrives it that they end up in Arnoud Maakvrede’s shop, saying that Arabella deserves Amsterdam’s best baking.
‘Gingerbread has been banned,’ Hanna says, her face grim. ‘At least, in shapes of mankind. I thought Arnoud was going to lay an egg, he looked so angry. We’ve had to crush entire families and sell them on as crumbs.’
‘The burgomasters,’ she says, as if that explains all. Cornelia shudders.
Arnoud confirms that the forms of men and women, boys and girls, have indeed been banned, as have the doll-seller booths on the Vijzeldam. The reason has something to do with the Catholics, he says. False idols, the importance of the invisible over the tangible. ‘Puppets are funny things,’ Cornelia sniffs.
‘That doesn’t make the Church right,’ says Arnoud. ‘Think of the cost.’
‘We’ll just have to make them in the shape of dogs,’ says Hanna, ever-enterprising.
Instead of gingerbread, Nella buys Arabella a book of insect prints. She supposes her sister would prefer Arnoud’s finest biscuits, but better, she thinks, that Arabella should have a book and learn a little. You wouldn’t have thought such a thing back in August, Nella tells herself. She feels differenced, as if something is working on her and she has taken the bait.
Back home, Marin sizes up the riding crop. ‘How much did this cost? He’s only a child.’
‘It’s what Johannes did with my cabinet,’ Nella observes, giddy with her purchases, feeling powerful and rich. ‘I’m only following suit.’
By the third week of Johannes’ absence, icicles hang off every door frame, every windowsill, even off the spiders’ webs in the garden, like tiny crystal needles. The four of them wake up cold and they all go to bed shivering. Nella yearns for spring, for blossom, the smell of turned earth, new animals, the vivid oily tang in the root of lamb’s wool. She waits at the door for something to arrive from the miniaturist, but nothing comes. Remembering Hanna’s comment about the burgomasters, the banning of puppets at Christmas, she wonders whether the miniaturist will ever send anything again.
Returning to her room, she finds Marin with her hands in the cabinet. It is a shock to see her there, and Nella rushes over, trying to pull the curtain across.
‘You didn’t ask to come in!’
‘No, I didn’t,’ Marin replies. ‘I wonder how that feels.’ She has something in her hand, and she seems agitated. ‘Petronella, did you tell someone about us?’
Please, God, Nella thinks. Let her not have found her own doll. Marin opens her
‘The limited appeal of furniture and dogs I can just understand. But a puppet of Jack Philips?’
To Nella’s astonishment, Marin yanks open the window and throws Jack through it. She runs to the casement to witness his flailing journey. He lands right in the middle of the iced canal, inert and marooned in the mass of white. A fear thrills through her. ‘You shouldn’t have done that, Marin,’ she says. ‘You really shouldn’t.’
‘Don’t play with fire, Petronella,’ Marin snaps.
I could say the same to you, Nella thinks, looking miserably at the stranded doll. ‘It’s my cabinet, not yours,’ she calls, as Marin closes the bedroom door.
Jack remains outside on the ice. Nella tries to coax Rezeki to bring the doll back in her jaws, but the dog growls at the sight of it, skittering, her hackles raised. Nella wants to cross the frozen canal herself, but she is not as light as Bert and the other urchins, and they are no longer around to ask. She pictures herself falling through and drowning, all to save a puppet – compelled to protect it though she doesn’t know why. Keeping Jack closer to the cabinet just seems like the safest thing to do, where she can keep an eye on him. Reluctantly Nella goes back in, cursing Marin in her head.
That night, Nella falls into a restless sleep, the words of Marin’s ripped-up love note floating in her mind. Jack is speaking it, his English accent hitting the words like a skiff on choppy waves. You are sunlight through a window, which I stand in, warmed. From back to front, I love you. A thousand hours. Jack runs through the corridors of Nella’s mind, wet from the ice, wearing one of Marin’s animal skulls upon his curly head. Nella wakes up with a jolt, her dream so vivid that she’s convinced Jack is in the corner of the room.
The next morning is St Nicholas’s Day, the sixth of December. When Nella pulls open her curtains and looks below, her breath stops in her throat. Jack’s doll is sitting up against their door post, taking in the frosty light.
When Nella sneaks out to pick up the frozen puppet from the front step, the street is still empty. Mists rise like swirls of breath above the ice.
‘Where is everyone?’ she asks at breakfast, Jack hidden in her pocket. Marin says nothing, delicately dismantling a herring.
‘The burgomasters have succeeded once again,’ Otto says heavily, carrying in a board laden with herenbrood and a deep disc of yellow Gouda for Nella. His weariness for the bureaucracy of state sounds almost fond – almost like Johannes.
Marin abandons her herring and stirs a bowl of compote, the tips of her fingers bluish on the spoon. She stirs and stirs, staring at the glistening maceration of plum. ‘It has been publicly stated that dolls and puppets are forbidden,’ she says. Nella can feel Jack’s frozen doll against her leg, the offending item making a dark, damp circle on the wool. ‘Papistry,’ Marin continues. ‘Idolatry. A heinous attempt to capture the human soul.’
‘You sound frightened of them,’ Nella says. ‘Almost like you think they’ll come to life.’
‘Well, you can never be sure,’ observes Cornelia. She, like the other two women, is wrapped up in layers of clothing, swaddled tightly in her Haarlem shawls.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Marin snaps. Nella imagines tiny sugar crumbs gathered like snow in the corner of her sister-in-law’s solemn mouth as she weeps in another bath. Wearing her hidden fur, eating her secret stash of candied walnuts, protecting her unholy brother, Marin lives in two worlds. Is her deathless public propriety really a fear of God, or a fear of herself? What lies beating in that carefully protected heart?
Freezing air whistles through the crevices of the dining-room walls. The house does feel colder – as if the air from the night seeped in and hasn’t shifted. ‘The fires are lit,’ Nella says. ‘But it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Have you noticed that?’
‘It’s because our wood supplies have thinned,’ says Otto.
‘It does us no harm to experience the cold,’ Marin replies.
‘But must experience always be endurance, Marin?’ Nella asks.
They all turn to Marin. ‘In suffering we find our truest selves,’ she says.
Nella follows Cornelia down to the warmth of the working kitchen, Jack still in her pocket. Cornelia clatters the plum compote jar and brandishes a rolling pin to attack some pastry for a pie. Otto follows, taking up a cloth to polish a battalion of Johannes’ spring boots lined up along the kitchen door. ‘Otto, will you sneak some peat from the attic? Madame Marin won’t notice.’ He nods, distracted. ‘She loves her privations, but we are feasters to our core,’ Cornelia observes. ‘Behind closed doors, I will bet you my entire set of pans that gingerbread men are being gobbled into women’s stomachs, no matter what the burgomasters say.’
‘Or husbands, nibbling effigies of their wives,’ Nella adds. Her joke is heavy, hanging undigested in the air; this talk of wives, of edible men to be held in the hand. Never to be nibbled, Nella flushes with shame. To distract herself, she imagines cheerier scenes behind doors other than theirs. Celebrations turned inwards – houses draped in paper chains and fir branches, buns fresh from the stove, laughter and kandeels of cinnamon wine. It is happening all over the city today, St Nicholas’ Day, the patron saint of children and sailors celebrated in a carnival of hidden defiance. Sinterklaas belongs to them. As does their gluttony, so does their guilt.
It is hard right now to imagine the Magi in the boiling desert, travelling to worship the soon-to-be-Christ. Nella wants the doors and windows open, to let in the spirit of revelation. An open window might maintain an open mind. ‘Christmas soon,’ Cornelia says, ‘and then – Epiphany.’ Her voice hints at a private bliss.
‘What’s so special about Epiphany?’
‘The Seigneur lets Toot and me dress up like lords and eat at his table. No chores all day. Of course,’ Cornelia adds, ‘I still have to make the food. Madame Marin doesn’t let it go that far.’
‘Of course not.’
‘I’ll make a King’s Cake too,’ Cornelia says. ‘Hide a coin in the mix. Whoever bites it will be king for a day.’
Otto laughs, a sound with a bitter edge. It makes Nella’s head turn, it sounds so unlike him. And when she looks at him, he will not meet her eye.
‘This came for you,’ Marin says, making her way down the kitchen stairs.
Nella’s heart lifts that something new has come from the miniaturist, but the writing on the front flushes a melancholy through her before the letter is even opened. It is her mother’s wiry hand, inviting her daughter and son-in-law to spend some of the festive season back in Assendelft. Carel misses you. The loops and lines are a painful reminder of a life which for Nella no longer exists.
‘Will you leave?’ Marin asks.
The pleading note in her question comes as a surprise. Something has slipped in Marin over these three weeks, and amidst her flashes of ill temper she has a new vulnerability. She really seems to want me to stay, Nella thinks – and could I even bear to go back, my flat stomach wrapped in a dress of Bengal silk, no growing child to brag of, my marriage a hollow victory? Johannes could perform the role of loving husband without much fuss. He is complacent when it comes to keeping his wits. But I would let mine go – they would fall from my grasp the moment I saw my mother’s hopeful face.
‘No,’ she replies. ‘I think it best that I stay here. I’ll send the gifts I bought. We’ll go next year.’
‘We’ll have a feast of sorts,’ Marin offers.
‘None at all.’
The women’s two pledges flit between them like a pair of moths, charging the air with a new sort of energy.
Nella reinstates Jack in the cabinet house with mixed feelings. It still seems better to have him where she can keep an eye on him, although his presence remains unnerving. Later in the evening, some illicit musicians come to risk a song
‘Smashed violins? I look forward to it,’ says Nella, drily.
Cornelia laughs. ‘You sound like the Seigneur.’
Marin says Nella should shut the window and draw the curtains. ‘People will see you, hanging out the window like a washerwoman – or worse,’ she hisses as Cornelia scurries away. She paces behind Nella in the dark of the unlit hall, but as Nella keeps listening to the musicians, so does Otto, standing a little further off.
As the recorder pipes faster, the drummer beats a heady, insistent rhythm on the taut pigskin, thumping in response to Nella’s heart. Otto said she shouldn’t kick a hive, but part of her will always be a country girl. She thinks of Jack upstairs – all of them, wedged in those miniature rooms, waiting for something to happen. No, Nella decides. I’m not afraid of anything that comes with a sting.
The Fox Is Feverish
The next morning, refreshed by her musician rebellion and her decision to stay for Christmas, Nella plans to make her way to the Kalverstraat with her longest letter yet for the miniaturist.
Dear Madame (I know you are Madame – you have neighbours willing to talk),
I thank you for the eight dolls, and the miniature of my parakeet. I am sure it was you on the Herengracht bridge, watching my despair as I realized I had lost my childhood’s last surviving link. Is the reappearance of my little bird an offer of comfort or a sharp lesson?
Do you know what your delivery boy has done, the unhappiness he’s caused? I assume it was you who returned the Englishman’s puppet back to our front step – be you proud artisan or pesterer, I cannot tell. I am sorry that your excellent work was hurled upon the ice, but your intentions remain a mystery, and some people are unnerved.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes