The miniaturist, p.30
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       The Miniaturist, p.30

           Jessie Burton
 

  There is another room at the back, but that looks stripped of life as well. Nella moves silently up a wooden staircase, thinking her ribs will barely cage her heaving lungs.

  When she gets to the top, her breath stops in her throat. A wide worktop has been built, running round all four walls; another square room, the floorboards dusty, the windows smeared with streaks of rain. But on the worktop, a world.

  Tiny, unfinished pieces of furniture scatter across one part of the bench. Half-sawn and abandoned – oak, ash, mahogany, beech – chairs and tables, beds and cots, even a coffin, dressers, picture frames. There are enough pieces here to furnish ten, twenty cabinets, a lifetime of supplies. In a charred-out hearth, minuscule copper pans and imperfect pewter saucers spill like foreign currency, and the arms of a shrunken candlestick reach out like tiny tendrils.

  And then the dolls. Rows and rows of puppet citizens – old men, young ladies, priests and militiamen, a herring-seller, a boy with a bandage on his eyes – and is that Arnoud Maakvrede, with his apron and a round red face? Some headless, others legless, some with blank faces, others with their hair elaborately curled, small hats the size of moths’ heads.

  With trembling fingers, Nella sorts through the city of Amsterdam for a new Johannes, for one last desperate hope that he will live. Sunday at sundown – the three words wreathe in her mind like a never-ending curse. She spies a baby, no larger than her thumbnail, curled up, eyes closed with a small smile.

  Then she cries out. Before her is a miniature house, small enough to sit in her palm. It is her house – nine rooms and five human figures carved within, the woodwork considered and intricate. Each room contains a miniature of the miniature she was sent, the green chairs, the lute, the cradle. Astonished, she encloses her life in the centre of her fist.

  Nella puts it in her coat pocket with the baby, and after some hesitation she takes Arnoud too. The old residue of Cornelia’s superstition about idols is difficult to shake off, but Nella grips them tight, desperate for some comfort in the absence of any miniature Johannes.

  Stacked up neatly and clipped with a peg, a pile of letters lies to Nella’s left. Her hands still shaking, she picks them up and begins to flick through the sheaf. One: Please – I have come to see you several times, but still you do not answer. Another: I received your miniature. Are you saying I shouldn’t marry him? Another: My husband threatens to stop this, but then I cannot bear to live. Another: You sent my twelve-year-old a cat; I must ask you to desist. Another: Thank you. He has been dead ten years and I miss him every day. Another: How did you know? I feel a madness creeping in. Some are merely lists: Two puppies, black and white, but one must be a runt. A looking-glass, holding a beautiful face.

  Nella rifles for her own, and there it is, the first one written in October last year when she was newly arrived, when Marin stirred the silt and Cornelia could not yet be counted on as a friend. I cannot guess, she’d written, but that you are trained in the art of small things. How long ago that feels.

  All this time, she thinks, I have been watched and guarded, taught and taunted. But never has she felt more vulnerable. Here she is – hidden in the middle of so many of Amsterdam’s women, their secret fears and hopes. She is no different. She is Agnes Meermans. She is the twelve-year-old. She is the woman who will miss her husband every day. We are legion, we women; in thrall to the miniaturist. I thought she was stealing my life, but in truth she opened its compartments and let me look inside.

  Wiping her eyes, she finds all her other notes – including the long missive she lost the day Jack turned up in the hall, in which she requested the board game verkeerspel. It is still attached to the promissory note of five hundred guilders. Let that be the oil on your front door’s stubborn hinges, she had written, but the miniaturist hadn’t even exchanged it. She hadn’t taken the money.

  She must have been watching me in the Old Church that day, Nella thinks – when Otto went to pray and Agnes grabbed me by the sleeve. Surely the only way she would have known I wanted a verkeerspel board was to creep up and pick my pocket? They say that watchers are always watched in Amsterdam, even those who cannot see.

  Yet all this smacks too much of Cornelia’s spy, and not enough of Nella’s prophetess. She inhales the papers, as if to catch the miniaturist’s scent – a Norwegian pine perhaps, or the cooling scent of lakeside mint. But there is only dry paper, smelling vaguely of Nella’s own room. This letter was intended for the miniaturist, and somehow she received it.

  There are annotations down the side of her letters. Parakeet – green. Husband – yes, Johannes Brandt. She fights to emerge. Many doors without a key, and more than one explorer. The dog. The sister, the servant. Maps that cannot span their world. A constant searcher, a tulip planted in my soil who won’t have space to grow. Don’t go back. Loneliness. Talk to the English boy. Try and make him see.

  A tulip planted in my soil, Nella repeats.

  Someone is downstairs, closing the front door, clomping around in heavy boots. Nella looks desperately for somewhere to hide, and scurries along into the upper back room. The only thing in it is an unmade narrow bed. Crawling under its frame, she waits.

  ‘Are you up there?’ calls a voice. It is a man’s voice, soft and slightly querulous. He sounds strange to Nella’s ears, not from this city. ‘I’ve come,’ he says. ‘There’ve been too many letters. I warned you again and again not to do this.’

  He waits, Nella waits. The dust from the floor gets into her nose and before she can stop it, she sneezes. The sound of the boots becomes louder. He’s coming up the wooden stairs. Now he begins shuffling around the workshop, tutting as he picks things up and places them back down, muttering as he rummages through the miniaturist’s handiwork. ‘Such a talent,’ Nella hears him say. ‘Such a waste.’

  He stops. Nella freezes, barely breathing.

  ‘Petronella, why are you hiding under the bed?’ he calls through the other room. Nella doesn’t move, a chill creeping through her, blood pounding in her head. Her throat constricts, her eyes feel hot. How does he know my name?

  ‘I can see your feet,’ he goes on. ‘Come on, child. We haven’t time for this.’ This last comment makes him chuckle. Nella thinks she might vomit from the terror.

  ‘Come, Petronella. Let us discuss your strange events.’

  His voice is not unkind. Although Nella would rather spend the rest of this awful day hiding under the miniaturist’s slovenly bed than face the world – his invitation, delivered so gently, so temptingly, makes her crawl out from her hiding place.

  On seeing an old man before her, she cries out in surprise. He is so small, she feels twice his size. ‘Who are you?’ she asks.

  His rheumy eyes widen, and he backs away. A solitary puff of white hair rests on top of his head like an afterthought. ‘But you’re not Petronella,’ he says, mystified.

  ‘Yes I am,’ Nella says, her panic beginning to rise. You are Petronella, she tells herself. Of course you are. ‘Who are you?’ she demands again, trying to make her voice a challenge.

  The old man looks at her suspiciously. ‘I’m Lucas Windelbreke.’ Nella sinks onto the bed. ‘She’s gone,’ he says sadly, looking around the corners of the room. ‘I know it.’

  ‘The miniaturist?’

  ‘Petronella.’

  Nella shakes her head, as if to knock her own name out of her ears. ‘Petronella? Seigneur – the woman who lived here was called Petronella?’

  ‘Indeed she was, Madame. In our tongue, is it such an uncommon name?’

  Nella supposes not – her own mother shares her name, and Agnes made the same observation back at the silversmiths’ feast. ‘But she’s from Norway,’ Nella says, trying to control her confusion. ‘She’s from Bergen.’

  A cloud passes over Lucas Windelbreke’s face. ‘Her mother was from Bergen. Petronella grew up with me in Bruges.’

  ‘But why?’

  ‘Why?’ echoes Windelbreke, looking forlornly round the room. ‘Because Petronella
is my daughter.’

  Nella hears the last word he utters, but it doesn’t make sense. It seems impossible to call the miniaturist daughter – it conjures Assendelft, a mother, a strange safety, the comfort of human flaw. ‘I don’t believe you,’ she says. ‘She’s the miniaturist, she doesn’t—’

  ‘We all have to come from somewhere, Madame,’ Windelbreke says. ‘Do you think she was born from an egg?’

  The question jars in Nella’s mind. She’s sure she’s heard it before. ‘Her mother’s family wouldn’t have her,’ he says.

  ‘Why not?’

  Windelbreke says nothing, looking away.

  ‘I wrote to you, Seigneur,’ Nella says, feeling dizzy, sitting back down on the bed.

  ‘If you did, your letter was one of many.’

  Nella’s eyes flick to the pile of letters, visible on the worktop through the other room. ‘It was because your daughter was beginning to frighten me,’ she says. ‘But she never replied, and neither did you. I wanted to know why she was sending me these pieces.’

  ‘In all honesty, Madame, I haven’t seen her for years.’ He clears his throat and worries his puff of hair, patting his skull as if to keep in the grief quivering up towards the surface. ‘All these letters kept arriving, and then I discovered she’d placed this notice in Smit’s List. “All, and yet nothing”.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘It is hard for me to believe that Petronella was trying to frighten you.’

  Nella thinks of Agnes, her bitten-down nails, her strange, distracted manner. ‘I imagine she frightened many of us, Seigneur.’

  He frowns. ‘My daughter has a great wonder for the world, Madame. But I concede; she is often greatly dismissive of the way it presents itself to her. She always said there was something beyond her reach and she called it “the fleeting forever”.’ He sits at the end of the bed, his feet not touching the floor. ‘If only she’d been happy with clocks!’ he exclaims. ‘But Petronella long desired to live outside the boundaries of measured time. Always wayward, always curious. She mocked the way people clung to their timepieces, how everything had to be in order. My work was too restrictive for her, and yet the creations she put together in my workshop would barely sell. I admit – they were extraordinary, but I was loath to put my name to them and claim them as my own.’

  ‘Why ever not?’

  He smiles. ‘Because they didn’t tell the time! They measured other things – things people didn’t want to be reminded of. Mortality, a broken heart. Ignorance and folly. Where numbers should have been, she painted customers’ faces. She sent them messages that sprang out of the clock when the hand reached twelve. I had to beg her to stop. She said it was because she could see into their souls, their inner time, a place that paid no heed to hours and minutes. It was like trying to tame a cat.’

  ‘Did you believe that she could see into people’s souls?’ Nella asks. ‘She seemed to know so much that was going to happen to me.’

  Windelbreke rubs his chin. ‘Did she?’ he says. He looks towards his daughter’s workshop. ‘You sound as adamant as all those other women who wrote to me. So keen to give up self-dominion.’

  ‘No! If anything, Seigneur, she has helped me take it back.’

  She is silenced by the truth of this, her protestation. Windelbreke spreads his hands. ‘She gave you back your own possession.’ He smiles, looking shyly pleased. ‘All I can tell you is this, Madame. My daughter believed readily that what she was doing had purpose. But I tried to teach her that her gift of observation could only go so far. Other people would have to choose to see what she saw too, or she’d wear herself to nothing. If she didn’t reply to you, perhaps she felt you’d understood. You saw what she was trying to say.’

  Nella can feel tears coming. ‘But I don’t understand,’ she says.

  ‘But I wonder if you do.’

  Nella stares at the lines on her palms, leading off her skin, directing her to places she cannot see. She clenches them, rolling up these maps of her self. ‘Perhaps I do,’ she says. Windelbreke unnerves her with his probing questions. She wants to run home to the Herengracht, to be with Marin and Cornelia and Thea, to sit with Dhana and stroke her ears. But they will ask about Johannes and she will have to tell them. Sunday at sundown. She doesn’t know if she has the strength.

  ‘I don’t know what she’s been doing all these years – what strange skills she’s picked up or the company she’s kept,’ Lucas Windelbreke says. ‘She’s the cleverest person I ever knew. But if you see my daughter, Madame, please tell her to come home.’

  Nella leaves Windelbreke, a daughter missing, slowly packing her beautiful handiwork into a set of boxes. ‘It can’t stay here,’ he says. ‘But I’m not throwing it away. Perhaps she’ll come to Bruges and retrieve it.’ He sounds unconvinced.

  Nella thinks of the women throughout Amsterdam waiting for their next delivery. Some in trepidation, many in hope, others with the glazed eye of those who cannot live without something else to support them, without the miniaturist and her quality so elusive. They will wait for their happiness. And when it doesn’t come – when the pieces stop, as they stopped for Nella – what will they do then? These women gave her their letters, and the miniaturist exchanged them for the currency of themselves. They own themselves, to barter, hoard or spend.

  Nella walks back down the Kalverstraat, oblivious to the calls of shopkeepers. Sunday at sundown. How will I tell them? she asks herself. How will I tell them that Johannes is going to have a stone put round his neck before being thrown into the sea?

  Numbly, she keeps walking through the streets, onto the Golden Bend. Cornelia is standing at the door, waiting, and at the sight of her, Nella’s news of Johannes, and the secret of Lucas Windelbreke and the miniaturist, dies in her throat. The girl is pale and sombre. She looks so much older than her years.

  ‘We did something wrong,’ is all Cornelia says. ‘We did it wrong.’

  A Closing Door

  Time, in these instances, is not easy to measure. Nella ploughs the freshest of her memories – leaving Marin awake, running to the Stadhuis and then to the Kalverstraat in search of a salvation that was never going to come. All of it on this self-same day – but Slabbaert’s sentence, Windelbreke’s secrets – they feel as if they happened last year. Marin has swallowed time, and on the map of her pale skin, Nella cannot find the clue of when she sank and how she disappeared.

  Marin’s cleverness has endured until the end, enabling her to leave unseen. Her spirit has slipped through their fingers. Even in her final breath has she evaded, keeping for herself the moment of her death.

  ‘No,’ Nella chokes. ‘No. Marin, do you hear me?’

  But Nella knows that she is no longer there. Standing with Cornelia at the side of the bed, they touch Marin’s face. She is covered in a sheen of moisture, as if she’s been lying in the rain.

  Shaking, Cornelia gathers up Marin’s solitary legacy from her inert breast. She lifts Thea up, her entire hand cupping the baby’s tiny skull. Cornelia has swaddled her with so many lengths of cotton, only her nutshell face peeps through. Nella and Cornelia remain at the bed, still obedient to Marin in their shock.

  ‘It isn’t possible,’ Nella breathes.

  ‘There was nothing I could do,’ says a voice at the open door. Nella jumps, turning in horror to see a large woman walking towards them, sleeves rolled up, built like an Assendelft cow-herd.

  ‘Who—’

  ‘Lysbeth Timmers,’ the woman interrupts. ‘Your maid found me in Smit’s List. You should take that child out of here immediately.’

  ‘She was the nearest,’ Cornelia mutters to Nella, her voice hoarse as she holds Thea tight. ‘You told me to, Madame.’

  Nella stares at this Lysbeth Timmers, shielding Marin’s prone body from the stranger’s shrewd observance. In this odd, held calm, she wonders how she could have been so reckless, telling Cornelia to throw open their doors and expose their secrets. A fox in the hen house, Lysbeth stands with h
er hands on her hips.

  ‘She’s a wet-nurse,’ Cornelia whispers. ‘But she didn’t pass the midwife examination.’

  ‘I birthed four children of my own,’ Lysbeth answers equably, overhearing. She strides towards them, plucking Thea out of Cornelia’s arms.

  ‘No!’ Cornelia cries as Lysbeth carries the child to the threshold, where she pulls up a chair. The wet-nurse examines the baby back and front, as if Thea were a suspect vegetable at market. After running her reddened fingers over Thea’s tight little cap, without further ado she pulls down her loosened corset and shirt. She hikes Thea onto her dark pink nipple and lets the child feed. ‘You’ve done a bad job,’ she observes.

  ‘What do you mean?’ Cornelia says. Nella hears the inexplicable panic in her voice.

  Lysbeth looks up at her. ‘Swaddling her like this.’

  Exhausted, Nella bristles. ‘We’re not paying you for your criticism, Mrs Timmers,’ she says.

  ‘Look,’ says Lysbeth, unruffled. ‘Their limbs are like wax at this age. If you bind them wrong, you’ll have a crooked spine and twisted legs by the time she’s one year old.’

  She pulls Thea off her breast and begins unravelling her like a parcel. In a second, she has whipped off the child’s cap.

  Cornelia takes a step forward, tense, alert.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ Nella asks. In the rush to the Stadhuis, she had barely looked at the child the morning after the birth. But now, as she remembers Cornelia’s agitation – It doesn’t seem possible. It cannot be true – her own eyes see what the astonished maid was trying to tell her.

  With her head of dark hair, so black for a Dutch baby, Thea’s newly washed skin is the colour of a candied walnut. The baby’s eyes have opened, and her irises are small pools of night. Nella comes closer; she cannot stop staring.

  ‘Thea,’ Cornelia breathes. ‘Oh, Toot.’

  As if she has heard this, Otto’s daughter turns to the maid. She offers a newborn’s gaze; a world entirely of herself.

  Lysbeth looks up at Nella, waiting for her to speak. As the silence in the room thickens, Marin’s words begin to race around Nella’s head. This child will be far from convenient. If he survives, this child will be stained. Surely Lysbeth can hear her hammering heart? Beside her, Cornelia seems paralysed.

 

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