The miniaturist, p.28
The Miniaturist, p.28Jessie Burton
‘I have no plan, Madame. It is the will of God.’
‘What did the miniaturist send you?’
Meermans holds the rain-spattered guilders aloft. ‘Shouldn’t you be more worried about how you’re going to find more of these?’
Raindrops start falling more steadily. The spectators rush past them, back into the shelter of the gallery. Nella grabs Meermans’ arm to stop him from leaving.
‘Did the miniaturist send you things yet to happen, Seigneur? Or things that had already passed?’
‘Evil hints and vile mockery – no Dutchman should have to put up with it.’ He hesitates, and then the chance to speak of it takes him over, the relief that there is one person who might believe him. ‘I hid the parcels and messages, but Agnes still found them, or they found their way to Agnes. It’s not jealousy that’s unsettled her, Madame. It’s that cabinet. If she hadn’t found out about yours, none of it would have happened.’
‘None of what? Is Agnes quite well?’
‘ “It’s the truth,” Agnes keeps saying – “he’s telling me the truth.” So I went to the Kalverstraat to have this miniaturist arrested.’
‘Your cabinet will remain unfinished, Madame, just as Agnes’s has been razed to the ground. The burgomasters were very interested to know there was someone working within the city with no guild jurisdiction. Miniaturist,’ he scoffs. ‘It’s not even a proper job.’
Fear splits Nella apart. She can’t feel her body, all she can see is Meermans’ large face, his pig-like eyes, the vast expanse of his jaw. ‘Seigneur, what have you done to the miniaturist?’
‘He’d gone, the vile little spy. But I saw to it that he won’t come back. They’ve given Marcus Smit a hefty fine for allowing a non-Amsterdammer to offer his services on his List. And that house on the Kalverstraat will be a lodging for someone who actually belongs to this city.’ Meermans holds the thousand guilders under her nose. ‘You don’t even realize what an insult this is, Madame, the hundreds and thousands that could have been made. My livelihood is ruined because of Brandt’s neglect.’
How obsessed he is with his guilders, how careless of everything else. Nella’s blood heats the ropes of her temper; they smoke and snap apart. ‘I’ve seen Agnes’ sugar loaves,’ she says. ‘Your borrowed glory. They’re not all rotten – but you are, and so’s your wife. Marin made a lucky escape when she decided to turn you down.’
At this, he staggers back.
‘And I believe, Seigneur,’ she says, ‘I know, that even if Johannes had sold every one of those loaves by now – you would still be happy to see him drown.’
‘How dare you. You’re nothing but a little—’
‘Keep those guilders,’ she says and turns away, calling to the skies. ‘And may the miniaturist hound both of you to Hell.’
From the Stadhuis, she sets off quickly in the direction of the Kalverstraat, but running footsteps and Cornelia’s cry stop her in her tracks. ‘Madame, Madame!’
‘Cornelia? I found Meermans—’
‘Did you tell him about Madame Marin?’ Cornelia, stricken, looks up and down the street. She appears green in the dim rainy light, her hands bunched together as if clutching a sprig of invisible flowers.
‘No.’ Nella feels suddenly exhausted. ‘I traded with him. Guilders for a life.’
Cornelia’s face falls. ‘But did you persuade him to stop testifying?’
‘I gave him a thousand guilders as a start for his precious sugar crystals. I cannot promise it will change anything, Cornelia. I’ve tried. He’s done something to the miniaturist, he sent the burgomasters there. I don’t know if she’s—’
‘You must come home.’
‘Now. There’s something happening to Madame Marin’s heart.’
‘Feel it,’ says Marin, waddling out of the gloom as soon as the two women arrive and close the heavy door. ‘My heart’s beating so fast.’
Nella puts her fingers to Marin’s neck and feels the pulse jumping, surging through. Marin gasps, reaching out for her.
‘What is it?’
‘The pain,’ she wheezes. ‘It’s breaking me apart.’
‘Pain?’ says Cornelia, horrified. ‘You said no pain had started.’
Marin moans. On her skirts, liquid soaks the dark wool, down towards the hem in an expanding circle.
‘Upstairs,’ says Nella, trying to sound calm, but her own heart is thumping. ‘We’ll go to my room. It’s nearer the kitchen to fetch water.’
‘Is it my time?’ Marin asks, her voice high with fear.
‘I think it might be. We have to fetch a midwife.’
‘We can buy her silence.’
‘With what, Petronella? You’re not the only one who looks in Johannes’ chest.’
‘Please, Marin. We have enough to pay her! Be calm.’
‘I don’t want anyone here but you and Cornelia.’ Marin grips Nella’s hand, as if clinging to it will make everything all right. ‘Women do this all the time, Petronella. No one but you can see.’
‘I’ll fetch hot water,’ Cornelia says, rushing down to the working kitchen. Nella notices Blankaart’s book is open on a chair.
‘You do know what to do, Petronella?’
‘I’ll try.’ Nella was four when Carel was born, nine when Arabella was dragged out of their mother. She remembers the screaming, the panting, the lowing like a cow let loose in the house. The sheets stained red, piled up later in the garden, ready for the pyre. The weak light on her mother’s clammy face, the look of marvel on her father’s. There were the others of course, the children who didn’t make it. She’d been older then. Nella closes her eyes, trying to remember what the mid-wives did, trying to forget those little corpses.
‘Good,’ says Marin, but she looks pale.
‘When the pain was bad,’ Nella says, ‘my mother paced.’
For two hours, Marin paces upstairs, groaning when the rolls of thunder break inside her. Nella goes to the window, thinking of Johannes on his pallet of straw, of Jack, performing his way out of a locked box, of Meermans with his rain-spattered pride and guilders, of Agnes waiting for a message from the Kalverstraat. Where is the miniaturist now? In the corner of Nella’s eye, the cabinet house lives behind its yellow curtains, full of puppets held in time. Your cabinet will remain unfinished, Madame.
Outside, the rain has intensified; January rain, cold and unrelenting. There is a dog scuffle, the blur of a tawny cat. A sharp stench suddenly fills the room and Nella turns from the window to see the look of pure horror on Marin’s face, staring at the pile of hot, bloody faeces at her feet.
‘Oh God,’ Marin says, covering her face with her hands. Nella guides her back towards the bed. ‘My body is not my own. I am—’
‘Think no more of it. This is a good sign.’
‘But what’s happening? I’m falling apart. There’ll be nothing left of me once the baby’s here.’
Nella wipes away the mess, and puts the soiled towel into a bucket with a lid. When she turns round, Marin is curled up on her side. ‘This is not how I imagined it would be,’ she says, her face buried in the cushions.
‘No,’ says Nella, handing her a clean, damp towel. ‘It never is.’
Marin crushes lavender in her fist, breathing it deeply. ‘I’m so tired,’ she says. ‘I’m worn to my bones.’
‘It’ll be all right,’ says Nella, but she knows they’re only words. Outside in the hallway, she breathes the cool air, relieved to have escaped the bedroom’s thick atmosphere, its sluggish pulse of fear. Cornelia comes up the stairs, taking Nella’s hand and giving her a smile. ‘It is a blessing, Madame,’ she says. ‘It is a blessing that you came here.’
As evening falls and the rain continues, the waves of pain come constantly. Marin seems to be spiralling through herself. It feels, she says, like a deep, rolling agony. I am a cloud full of blood, she mutters – a giant bruise,
Marin is a vessel for the pain and she is the pain itself. She is nothing she has ever been before. As Cornelia and Nella dab Marin’s forehead and rub scented oils in her temples to calm her, Nella thinks of Marin as a mountain, huge and anchored, immoveable. The child inside her is a pilgrim descending her heights, in motion whilst Marin herself is paralysed. Every step he takes, every prod of his staff in her side, every kick gives him more power.
Marin cries out. Her hair is plastered to her forehead, her normally smooth face looks flushed and puffy. Leaning over the side of the bed, she vomits onto the rug.
‘We should get help,’ whispers Nella. ‘Look at her. She wouldn’t even know.’
Cornelia bites her lip, considering Marin’s sweat-soaked, scrunched-up face. ‘She would,’ she whispers back, her eyes shining with fear. ‘We can’t. Madame Marin wants no one else to know.’ She throws a towel over the thin liquid Marin has expelled, watching it soak up. ‘And anyway, who would we fetch?’
‘There’ll be someone in Smit’s List. We don’t know what we’re doing,’ hisses Nella. ‘Is she supposed to vomit like that?’
‘Where is he?’ Marin mutters, wiping her mouth on one of the cushions. Nella gives her the corner of a damp face cloth to suck the moisture.
‘We’ll have to look under her petticoat,’ she murmurs, walking back to Cornelia.
Cornelia blanches. ‘She would have my head off if I did that. She doesn’t even let me look at her bare back.’
‘We have to. I don’t know if this pain is normal.’
‘You will have to, Madame,’ says Cornelia. ‘I cannot.’
Marin’s eyelids flutter and she begins a low, guttural sound. It pitches higher, rising out of her like a bugle call. When she lets out another of these piercing exhalations, Nella hesitates no longer and gets on her knees, lifting the hem of Marin’s petticoat. It is almost unthinkable, looking between Marin’s legs. It is blasphemy.
Nella ducks her head under the hot fug of the petticoat and looks hard at what she can see. It is the most extraordinary thing she has ever laid eyes on. Neither fish nor fowl, nor godly nor human, and yet strangely all these things at once. At that moment, it seems like something coming from another land. A small thing stretched giant, a huge mouth stoppered with a baby’s head.
Nella sees a tiny crown, retches in the heat of the sheets, and pulls her head up into the air. ‘I can see it,’ she says, elated.
‘You can?’ asks Marin weakly.
‘You have to push now,’ says Nella. ‘When you see the top of the baby’s head you have to push.’
‘I’m too tired. He has to make his own way out.’
Nella ducks under the hem of the petticoat again and reaches out to feel the baby. ‘His nose isn’t out, Marin. He won’t be able to breathe.’
‘Push, Madame, you have to push,’ Cornelia cries.
Marin bellows and Nella places a twig between her teeth. ‘Now push again!’ she says.
Driving her molars into the wood, Marin begins to push, gargling behind the stick. She spits it out. ‘He’s ripping me,’ she gasps. ‘I can feel it.’
Nella pulls up the petticoat and Cornelia covers her eyes. ‘You’re not ripping,’ she says, but she can see a red fissure in that purple hairiness, and yet more blood. She keeps this to herself. ‘He’s coming,’ she calls. ‘Keep pushing, Marin, keep pushing.’
Cornelia stands by the window and begins a long and feverish prayer. Our Father, which art in – but Marin begins to ululate, a high, unending moan of excruciation, of epiphany. It is a sound that would flay off skin – but without warning, bird-sudden, the full head of the child breaks through. It comes facing down, its nose towards the sheets, its head a wet dark mass of hair.
‘His head is out! Push, Marin, push!’
Marin screams, piercing the women’s ears. A lot more blood comes, rushing out hot and wet, soaking the bed. Nella feels queasy, unsure whether there should be this much or not. Marin nearly pulls Cornelia’s hand off in the effort to expel the child. Its head turns a quarter circle, and Nella watches in amazement as the little thing appears to try and wriggle itself free.
A shoulder emerges, and again Marin bellows. The baby turns his head back towards the bed.
‘Push, Madame, push,’ urges Cornelia.
Marin pushes harder, giving herself up to the agony, resisting it no longer, accepting it as her very being. Then she stops, exhausted, unable to move, gasping for air on the bed. ‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘My heart.’
Cornelia places a tentative hand on Marin’s chest. ‘It’s jumping like a bird, Madame,’ she says. ‘It’s hammering.’
The room becomes still. Nella on her knees, Cornelia by the pillow, Marin splayed out like a star with her knees drawn up. The flames of the fire lie low, the last logs in need of stoking. Outside, there is only the sound of the rain. Dhana scratches at the door, desperate to be let in.
The women wait. The other shoulder, tiny as a doll’s, appears through Marin’s widened morass. Marin starts to heave again, and as Nella reaches for the baby’s shoulders, its teacup head, its body slithers out onto her surprised hands with a final gush of blood. Her fingers soaked, Nella feels the dense loaf weight of it, eyes closed like a philosopher, limbs wet and bluish, covered in white paste patches, folded tight upon her shaking palms. She checks. Marin’s pilgrim of pain is a baby girl.
‘Oh, Marin,’ she says, lifting up the baby. ‘Marin, look!’
Cornelia cries in joy. ‘A girl!’ she says. ‘A little girl!’ The long cord attaching her is metallic and muscular, and it snakes back up into Marin’s insides. ‘Get a knife,’ Nella tells Cornelia. ‘We need to cut this.’
Cornelia rushes away. Marin is breathing heavily, trying to pull herself up onto her elbows so she can see. She collapses back, barely able to speak. ‘My girl,’ she says, her voice half-crazed and hollow. ‘Is she alive?’
Nella looks at the child, covered in the crust of drying fluid and her aunt’s bloodied handprints. Her hair is dark and matted, her eyes still closed, as if now is not the moment to make herself known.
‘She’s not making a noise,’ says Marin. ‘Why isn’t she making a noise?’
Nella reaches for a warm damp cloth from the pail of water and begins to rub down the baby’s floppy arms, its legs and chest. ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ Marin asks.
‘Yes,’ Nella replies, but she is making it up. Wake up, baby, she thinks. Wake up.
Cornelia appears with a carving knife. Still the baby remains quiet, and the room is deathly silent too, everyone waiting, praying with every inch for one small sound of life.
Nella hands Cornelia the child and tries to cut the cord, but for all its human substance, it seems stronger than oak. She has to saw through it, and blood spatters over the sheets and onto the floor. Dhana, who has slunk into the room, trots up, examining the possibility of a meal.
Perhaps it is the arrival of the whippet, perhaps it is the clumsy ministration on her cord – but the baby begins to cry.
‘Thanks be to God.’ Cornelia bursts into tears.
Marin draws a lengthy ragged breath ending in a sob.
With the child now cupped in Nella’s hands, Cornelia ties a dark blue ribbon on the short stub of cord by its abdomen. The stub flops onto the baby’s stomach, the little girl finally victorious in battle.
Nella rubs the baby harder with a wet cloth, watching in fascination as the blood begins to pump through the deep-layered lace of veins. Cornelia, who has been standing close by, leans in. ‘Can’t you see?’ she whispers.
‘See what?’ asks Nella.
‘Look,’ says Cornelia, pointing at the baby. ‘Look.’
‘Thea,’ says Marin, making them jump. Her voice is raw and heavy. ‘Her name is Thea.’ She shifts restlessly in her bed. Her end of the cord is still attached
‘Thea,’ echoes Cornelia, staring at the baby as Nella puts her onto Marin’s chest. The child moves with her mother’s ragged breathing. Marin’s fingers tremble over Thea’s back, feeling the little rump, the kitten curve of spine. Tears start in her eyes and she weeps again whilst Cornelia soothes her, stroking her forehead. She clutches her child, who nestles her head in the crook of her mother’s neck. Marin wears an astonished expression, a mingling of triumph and pain. ‘Nella?’ she says.
‘Thank you. Thank you both.’
They hold each other’s gaze as Cornelia bundles up the massacre of linen. Marin’s breath rattles slightly, a sound to make your skin contract and prickle. She turns away to the window to look out into the fallen darkness of the canal. The rain has finally ceased. Above the narrowly divided rooftops, the weathervanes and gables, the moon is high in the star-streaked sky, an uneven half of shining light.
Turning to the closed velvet curtains of the cabinet, it occurs to Nella that Johannes missed something out when he ordered its dimensions. For where is Marin’s room – where is her cell of seed pods and maps, her shells and specimens? There are the two kitchens, the study, the salon, bedrooms, even the attic. Perhaps he was protecting her, or perhaps he never thought to have it built. The miniaturist sent no comment on Marin’s little space. Her secret room has evaded definition.
Nella and Cornelia try and catch sleep, upright in two of the rosewood chairs dragged up from the salon. They twist uncomfortably as Marin sighs and moans in the bed.
When Nella wakes, the bells are ringing eight o’clock. There remains a disturbing scent in the room; organs exposed, faeces, blood and vulnerable flesh. The fire is out. Around it are the futile scatterings of weak lavender heads, the silver ewer knocked on its side in Marin’s agonies. She realizes she is an hour late for her husband.
Frantically, she pulls the curtains apart. Cornelia opens her eyes, springing towards the bed. ‘I have to go to Johannes. Now.’
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes