The gears creaked, stubborn at first. A drop slowly added to the creek. The creek embodying a river. The ever-growing river coursed throughout his bloodstream, impulsively ushering him to flail his limbs in effort to keepalive.
As I settled in my humble abode among his troubles, I fathomed my existence. It was always troublesome, the existence of my kind. With people like him, it always seemed that we were fleeting--here for a second, gone the next, often replaced by something depressing. But for me--oh I was something bigger, something better than I had ever been before. Something that I knew would be greater than him, greater than me, greater than others of my kind. Something worthy, something loved, something tragic.
I doubted him at first. After all, he was aloof, contemplating my replacement with something less worthy, like his self-doubt about his future or his relationship with Willem or Maria. But here I was leaving my first home, definitely onto better things. I told you I was important. At the speed of light, he tried to contain me within those walls, as though to never let me go. I saw myself--my reflection-- through his eyes: her hair transparently yellow, her eyes pale cerulean, her smock like billowy sky, her cheek shining luminously like crushed pearls. I traveled through his weary muscles, weak from self-doubt and pessimism.
His hands, calloused and stained, grasped the aged paintbrush, the bristles responsive to his touch. He adjusted her shoulders, and felt them tighten, then slowly relax under his hands. It was the act of not doing anything, and therefore full of peace, with the tenderness of just living. The air permeated the scent of Venetian turpentine. He stepped back and breathed more slowly, and what he saw, lit by warming washes of honey and gold, was a respite in stillness.
I felt my consciousness trickle onto the parched canvas as he coated the paintbrush with the pulverized ultramarine. One stroke at a time, he prudently introduced me to my new home, never consigning me. He placed the rich hue onto the canvas hastily, as to never let me go amidst the pandemonium in his home. There I was, once a speck of nothingness, and now… something meaningful, one layer upon another.
The rugged canvas, once a plain bisque, was reconstructing with his deft laminas into something truly phenomenal. Each brush from his hand reflected the struggle from the past few months. Pieter's banter, Magdalena's worn and uneven clogs, begging Maria Thins, and then just today, Willem's outburst on Catharina and his children… each moment pressed into his mind, forcefully making their way down his ghastly cheeks. He layered the ultramarines and the honey-golds with greater vigor than before, afraid of crumpling into his own self-doubt.
I scanned outward and the world shone on me bright and full of life, something that was missing when I was within him. The modest living room contained a large wooden table, lazily adorned with a cloth, several chairs arranged around it. Next to me, a sweeping window, casting the beams of morning sunlight on Magdalena's virtuous face, reflecting upon the bench next to Jan where the palette and the golden pitcher sat.
I imagined him to quite different than he did: hollow cheeks and a dull complexion, but his eyes gleamed with foresight and steadfastness as he wept silently. I could feel myself grow, and through me, he did too: his grip stronger, his back straighter.
My presence now stretched across the expanse of the canvas, mimicking Magdalena's mien. My reflection was identical to hers: our hair transparently yellow, our eyes pale cerulean, our smock like billowy sky, our cheek shining luminously like crushed pearls. I leisurely gazed out at an open window with a sweet and somewhat naive expression. My smock hung in the graceful folds of that luscious deep blue of the early hyacinths, and in my hands lay a cloth I was supposed to mend. I spread on the canvas lightly, fastened to my new home in analogous brush strokes, overlapping layers of paint no thicker than a silk thread. I felt complete, real, alive. Dare I say, I was a masterpiece.
As the sun drowned into the horizon and the pale moon rose, Jan arose and stared intensely. He stared at me, pointing out my insecurities… a stroke too strong there, a stroke too thin here. Sighing in contempt, he left me for the night. After the cool night had settled and everything lay still, Magdalena crept down the stairs and gently fitted me into my new home, frameless in the outer kitchen.
I didn't stay there for long. Soon after Jan died, Catharina and the children needed the money, and I too felt that it was best if I left. Something about the house was different, empty, like a void that couldn't be filled. Several times before I left though, Magdalena whispered to me, as if she were reaching out for someone to understand.
"I can do it… I can do it too. Why must I mend and clean, living a life like mother's?," she wept in despair. "If only I had colors of my own, and brushes. I wouldn't just paint pictures of women inside cramped little rooms. I'd paint them out in marketplaces, bending in the potato fields, talking in doorways in the sunlight, in boats on the Schie, or praying in the Oude Kerk. I'd paint people skating, fathers teaching their children on the frozen Schie," she disclosed to me, only me. She knew she was doomed from the start. There was no future for her like her father's', that she knew. And I knew there was no future for me in that home anymore.
My reflection carried me to my next home, Hendrick van Buyten, the baker's house. When she let go of me, I felt a thrill. Perhaps that wasn't the right emotion, but I knew my legacy was worth far more than what it had been the Vermeer household. Hendrick seemed to think so too… surprisingly he had a good eye for things like me. My thrill heightened as I clutched Hendrick's wall. His house was well-furnished for a baker's: lush oriental rug, ornate maps on the wall, a panel of Nordic style windows on an entire wall. I knew I'd fit in into his home, but he had every intention of keeping me. Yet, I had overheard him speaking to his wife, "Out of pity I took her paintings Svetlana… of course dear, but I had to. Their family is starving and we have so much…". After some convincing, Svetlana came around to let me stay in their home.
I spent most of my early life in that house. The van Buyten's never had the commotion in their house that came with Jan's eleven children. Always calm and cool, at first I cherished the silence that Jan had yearned for so long. But alas, there's more to one's life than hanging from the same wall every day.
The next adventure came quite out of the ultramarine about 20 years later while I was resting. Svetlana grabbed me by my side and wrenched me off my place on the wall, her touch aggressive, jolting me from my restful stay. She marched out into the cold winter air, without concern about my paint cracking nor my shape contorting from the air's moisture. Her black boots clacked along the cobblestone as the wind gushed over my bare body. The path turned to concrete and she slid me under a hole into a warehouse with a thud. I lay on the chilling concrete on the inside of the warehouse, unable to see anything-- trapped beneath another painting and the dusty floor. After several hours of restless sleep, the metal door creaked open.
A pair of calloused hands, like Jan's, but more mundane, reached out and comforted me. I was placed in a cart with some others, like a pile of sweaty bodies thrown into a stack. My life couldn't possibly end now, I had yet to touch so many people. My memories flooded my mind, particularly of Jan and Magdelena. His love for the color ultramarine, his calloused hands, his attention to detail, her billowing skirt, her gentle face, their crowded and eternally noisy home. I hadn't even been in a museum yet! My thoughts consumed me and I hadn't realized where I arrived. The cart's creaky wheels slid into an auditorium, its walls already lined with other pieces. The room glowed with talent, but I felt a sense of familiarity in the air.
She entered the auction gallery, struck by the keenest of childhood wishes. Seeing so many of his paintings was like walking down an avenue of her childhood. And then suddenly there she was on canvas, framed.
I saw the familiar figure approach me. Her hair the same transparently yellow, her eyes the same pale cerulean; yet, her face reflected experience, her body echoed separation from her yearning, and her eyes unveiled a sense of defeat. Staring at my reflection once more, I yearned to return home.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Please note that this is a spin-off of The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland.