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Authors: Kim Devereux

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BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
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Now he's running – maybe he can still catch her – but it is too late. The body lies collapsed, head and shoulders slumped sideways at an impossible angle. The mouth is open, more of an exit than an entry. A few years ago he thought he'd got Christ's limp body just right when they took him off the cross. He had not. He tries to look but he can't – not at the dead eyes. So he fixes his eyes on her locks. Has the hair just moved from a little breath? Perhaps she is asleep? Everything in his body agrees. She is asleep. Geertje is wrong. He thinks of their dead babies, merely a few weeks old. How he held each of them. How his body insisted that they were alive because they were warm, even as he felt them limp as drowned cats in his arms. Back then, slowly, something in him had come to understand that soon they'd grow cold and then stiff and he would not be able to move their little limbs. Saskia and he had sat with them, their grief bearable while the imitation of life still clung to the babes.

Part of him wants to hold her too, as if to prolong her departure a little. But it is too late. He has no doubt at all that she is gone. He cannot bear to feel her body warm while knowing her to be dead. And most of all he cannot bear his body comprehending, as it had in the end with his babies, that all that is left now is – this absence.

He tries to will himself to step closer, to perform the rites, as she would have wanted: push down the untouchable eyelids with a cloth, use a pillow to keep the head tilted forward so that the lower jaw is brought up to close that dark hollow of a mouth, make her limbs lie less haphazardly – as if she were merely having a little rest that will turn out to last for ever. But death is none of those things. It has torn through her and left him with a pile of bones.

He averts his eyes, backs away and knocks over one of the candles. When he bends down to right it, smoke from the snuffed flame enters his nostrils, sharp like a long needle.

The very next day he finishes
The Night Watch
. He knows it won't be long before his own rigor will set in. After the last brushstroke he starts to pull a thick blanket over things: first over the memories of the girl who was his love, then over the room that holds what remains of her. He never goes back. The blanket is very accommodating; it does not care whether it is stretched over little joys or great sorrows. In the morning he goes around the house and closes all the shutters. He'll live under a shroud – there is no better place to hide from death. Not that he wants to hide; he wants to join her now, as he should have done before.

The house becomes a dim and mute world and even Geertje
appreciates this, hardly producing a sound when she cleans and cooks. And when she gets it into her head to light candles, he simply goes around after her, blowing them out again.

That month they carry two bundles from the house. The rolled-up body of the canvas remains with him for a few more weeks but his wife is gone within a day.

St Jerome in a Dark Chamber

They are getting nowhere. Samuel writes
flowers
on the list of things to arrange for the funeral. His master, slumped in a chair, has all the animation of a sack of swedes. When Geertje askes Rembrandt once again whether to order plenty of flowers, he mutters, ‘Why would I want flowers?'

This morning it took their joint efforts to dress him. At first he had protested and tried to push them away but then he merely lay motionless on the bed.

While Geertje wrestled with his arms, Samuel threaded his legs into breeches, reminding him of nothing so much as dressing his father's dead body. Then he tried to push the hopeless lump of flesh into an upright position, thinking a cow's carcass would have been easier to shift. Then, all of a sudden, Rembrandt stood up like a statue, so Samuel took him by the arm and led him downstairs.

Geertje is still stabbing question after question at him. Can she not see that it is no use? Samuel's apprenticeship with the greatest painter that ever lived is most definitely over. The Apelles of Amsterdam could not even get out of bed on his own.

Geertje has positioned herself squarely opposite Rembrandt, still waiting for a reply about the flowers, and the master's eyes are on the door as if he is waiting for the right moment to escape.

Samuel says, ‘Let's not trouble him anymore;
we
can decide what to do.'

Geertje huffs, gets up and starts to tackle the array of dirty pots and pans that have piled up on the wooden worktop. Samuel puts his hand on Rembrandt's coarse sleeve, stroking it, as he would a nervous horse.

‘You have to eat.'

There is no answer, but at least he has stopped eyeing the door. Geertje plonks a bowl of porridge on the table, way out of Rembrandt's reach, so Samuel has to push it in front of him. Not even a flicker of interest. He takes Rembrandt's hand and places the spoon into his fingers. They close around it, holding it like a brush. No further action follows.

Samuel looks over his shoulder; Geertje is busy at the sink. He prises the spoon out of Rembrandt's fingers. He'll have to try to feed him. To his surprise, the mouth opens and accepts food. Maybe there is hope. Rembrandt's eyes meet his and Samuel tries to find a presence behind the grey-blue irises but his master is not there.

Samuel will have to do his best to hammer out with Geertje the arrangements for Mistress Saskia's funeral. A daunting task considering that the result has to please Saskia's family. He writes
a generous amount of flowers
on his list.

Rembrandt lies in his bed. An ox has gone to sleep on his heart. Breathing is such a chore. Being awake is a chore. At least they've stopped bothering him. Thankfully the boy, not Geertje, brings him food. Samuel ministers to him as if he were a hatchling that has fallen out of its nest.

Geertje has started moving about downstairs and the putrid smell of what she brews tells him it must be morning. Besides, the deep red of the carpet is slowly blossoming out of the dark and strips of light are emerging from the wall where the sunlight filters through the closed shutters. They tremble almost imperceptibly. In another time he would have been compelled to render their tender oscillations in paint.

He follows the pattern all day as it makes its slow journey across the wall, until at dusk it fades and is gone.

Darkness solid as an anvil. So perfectly black that he does not know if perhaps his eyes have stopped working.

He pulls a blanket around himself, clutching its corners. He doesn't mind the darkness. His heart beats with supreme regularity; beat, beat, beat, beat, beat . . . Does it not know? Do all the parts of his body simply continue on without him? The
will to live
, what a useless accessory it is now and yet he cannot rid himself of it; his mouth still opens to each morsel of food that is offered.

*

Mostly he feels nothing, even as her absence tunnels through him. Except there is one particular thought that lances him every time:
You did not do enough for her
. It repeats itself over and over, as if to make sure he's heard it. At other times he hears someone singing. It's a lullaby, sung softly by his ear. And when all is quiet, the same voice whispers:
Have some heart for yourself
. The voice also tells him that it does not matter. Saskia understood and loved him. But he knows it matters; besides, he is oblivious to comfort.

What of the funeral? He should go. They already think him a bad husband. Where is the boy? At last, here he comes.

He's being fed again? Is it to the slaughter soon? His mind wants feeding too. Toothless gums gnawing on fragments of dreams. Incapable of remembering the meaning of certain words like
joy
. The light, despite moving so slowly, is impossible to track. Days both brief and long.

From time to time he crawls to the edge of the bed, puts his hands on the floor and takes to it on all fours, keeping low. The body has to probe the edges of the room. It does this with its eyes closed, fingering at boards and walls as if searching for something. If only it would stop this folly, allow sleep to come.

He wakes on the floor. Something is different. But what? More clattering, shouting and thumping of feet. He burrows back under the
covers. It is
the day
. The boy will come to dress him and try to take him there. She'll be in a box, in the aisle of the church, next to the cavity of her numbered grave. They will lower her into nothing and eclipse all light with a slab of stone – until the lease expires on that rented hole.

He tries to stand up but the ground has hands, pulling him down and something's skewering his head. The room's drunk, rotating on a wobbly axis. He waits for it to stop. The sounds come from the kitchen but no one is outside his door. He puts one foot in front of the other, expecting the ground to cant but it stays firm. Out he slips and up the stairs, already half forgetting where he's going. There's a hatch to the loft with a ladder going up. His father used to say,
always hold onto the ladder with one hand, then if you fall you can save yourself
. Mustn't make that mistake again. Don't let go with the left until the right is firmly around the next rung.

There. The top. Close the hatch. Now rest for a moment. Blood's rushing in his ears and veins, bringing with it the dust on the floorboards, weariness and the heart's strange contortions in his chest.

It's a big space, full of crates and boxes. Most of them contain old clothes, costumes or curious things which were irresistible at the time. Some light is squeezing in through the gaps between the roof tiles and the clouds of dust he's trodden loose make visible a fretwork of light beams.

He squeezes himself in where the rafters meet the floor in the eaves, lying on his side, pushing his back into the gap as far as it will go. You're safe. They won't find you. There's a shaft of light right in
front of his eyes, and in it dancing specks of dust shining with a light of their own. They are too beautiful. He closes his eyes.

Geertje and Samuel are shouting his name. Then finally quiet. They've given up; the front door falls shut.

His eyes are lured by a single mote of dust, suspended in a smattering of light, in the darkest corner of the eaves. The mote has rough edges. If you look closely, it's an entire world. Something in his heart, an inexplicable light there too.
Saskia
, his mouth forms silently. Then erupts – a scream. A creature pounding the floor. Hands scratched, bruised. Something heaves inside. Terror. Pressing hands to mouth.

‘God, where are you?' Voice a rasp.

Mouth moves to scream but no sound comes. Scything grief. Hands clawing at a box, ripping away the lid, digging through clothes. The red dress. Body wraps itself around plush colour, blind for comfort.

Someone's wailing, far away. Sniffs dress, to try to find her.

‘No, no, no, no, no.' She's not there.

The box again, hands pull out; garment follows garment, like an endless string. More and more. Enough to get buried in. He lies in his nest of velvet like a baby. Proper tears come. Flow until exhaustion ends them.

Where is that mote of dust now? His world?

Samuel is relieved that the burial was a swift business. The sour looks that Saskia's family gave him and Geertje: as if it was their fault that Rembrandt was absent. He told them that Rembrandt is overwhelmed with grief. They nodded politely but even now they will be saying:
If only Rembrandt had looked less after himself and more after her
. It is not true of course. He loved her dearly; that's why he can't go on now, without her.

Samuel hesitates for a moment before going into Rembrandt's bedroom, afraid to find that he is still gone. But there he is, asleep in his bed or pretending to be.

‘It's done. It was fine,' he says, in case Rembrandt is awake. ‘She's resting now.' What a stupid thing to say.

Later, he brings him chicken soup. Rembrandt is sitting upright in bed. He looks a little better but smells like a pigsty. The jug and washbasin have not been touched. The stench is beyond cure by perfume. He needs a wash. Samuel starts spooning soup into the mouth and finds his own mouth opening and closing along with Rembrandt's. There is nothing he can do to stop it. Odd that in only a week Rembrandt's skin has turned white as paper. And the eyes: they look as if there is nothing left in the world worth focusing their gaze upon. If only he could see them alert again, intent on a challenge. This will be
my
challenge, he thinks, and then has an idea. He tries to catch Rembrandt's eye. ‘Mijnheer Six says it is impossible to produce an etching that depicts impenetrable darkness. I can see his point, for a paper saturated with the blackest black would still only look like ink on paper.'

Rembrandt's eyes slip away from the brief contact. The slurping of spoonfuls of soup goes on uninterrupted.

Samuel says, ‘Geertje put some fresh water there this morning so you can wash.'

Rembrandt nods.

‘You need to wash,' says Samuel.

Again he nods.

When he comes back with the next meal Rembrandt still stinks. Someone will have to rub him down. Naturally the task will fall to Geertje – it is the kind of thing she does, just as she looked after the mistress.

‘No!' she says, arms crossed over her broad chest. ‘I am not employed to look after him!'

‘What?'

‘It's the mistress that employed me to look after her and little Titus and it's just as well she did.'

‘But
he
is paying your wages now, always has.'

She huffs. ‘He never lifted a finger; she wanted him to care for her but he wouldn't even stay with her for five minutes. Now it's the same with Titus – poor little mite's got no mother and his father is busy doing nothing at all.'

She spits into the spittoon. How can she collect all that saliva when she never stops talking?

‘I won't do it, he's filthy, he's mad.' Then, after a pause, she whispers, ‘He's probably dangerous.'

‘It's women's work,' Samuel replies and regrets it as soon as the words are out of his mouth. Any moment now she'll slap her wet cloth about his face, but instead she bends over, roaring with laughter.

‘Ha, ha. You're the one that's done all the women's work so far, so I reckon it's your job. You're his
nurse
.'

‘Geertje, please. Yes, it's true. But think about it, I helped you dress him, didn't I? And like you say, I've done everything for him that needed to be done. If I hadn't you would have had to do it. It's only washing him. I can't do it. So will you? Please?'

She pats his head with uncharacteristic gentleness. ‘You're a good soul. Of course I will. I've washed a man many times before.' She slings a big pot over the fire. ‘And no doubt it won't be the last, as they seem to have trouble with it.' Then she eyes him up and down, steps closer and sniffs his collar. He runs out of the kitchen, buoyed along by her gales of laughter.

BOOK: Rembrandt's Mirror
5.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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