I knew when Pieter came to our bakery why he really came. He’d come to scoop up the day’s gossip of the girl he was smitten over but would mask it in market gossip or price inquiries. Griet also knew of his ordinary love but never soaked it up like gravy in bread. Pieter was apart of her humble life, but now she tasted a life of beauty. Once young woman taste the infatuation of a “gentlemen” or even more, an artist, they never can move on.
She certainly never has as a decade later. I still see her kneading the doe of her earlobes when the bakery buzzes with customers or when she rocks her son to sleep.
I gauged her heart’s transformation from maid, to an apprentice to a lover. I knew the day she tested out calling him “Johannes” in my presence and not “master.” She had crossed the line and would continue to fall in her own dreams first. It’s always a slow boil for hard-working, self-respected girls. The trickiest part of this type of affair is that a “lady of propriety” must first lie to herself skillfully, in the same way she use to maneuver her needle.
Always, always creating boundaries that are mirages to self-assure.
That day, she came to me like all girls do while hiding the secret that they are desired by a man of power. She walked anxious as ever, constantly looking behind herself as she stared past the pastry display. She darted in that day to my stall all the while grabbing her earlobe. In her clean worn hands was a brown satchel from my uncle. I remember my uncle bringing a similar one when I caught influenza as a young girl. I also heard the tragic tale of the blind tile man and his wife scrapping together their pennies to buy a satchel of pain remedy as their youngest daughter passed away from the Plague.
I had no idea why Griet was concealing my uncle’s potions, but had heard him talk of the painter’s new female apprentice who was given more and more responsibility as the winter passed. Apparently, now, the painter Vermeer only goes to the apothecary when its time to buy lapis to paint his skies.
In fact, Vermeer had used lapis to paint my dark blue skirt. My father had arranged the entire project for my 20th h birthday, the year he was bound to lose me to the most skilled doctor in Delft. In his last effort to keep me his “little one” forever he had arranged for me to sit. I was soon to be changing my surname and this truth pained his heart and he tried to cover over the changing seasons with a final last bribe of color.
Never did I feel so lovely in that yellow and black fitted bodice of silk and velvet, in my dark blue skirt and white cap that hung down in two points below my chin. In one hand I grasped a pewter pitcher that was sitting on a table, which helped me not to fidget and kept my hands from shaking. I sat in the bright corner by the window and looked out. I was so thankful he didn’t ask me to look him dead on, as he had apparently done to Griet. He had told my father he never asked ladies to look him in his eyes, as this would be improper. The word in the market was that the new sensual painting defied his rules. Griet dared to look at him square in his grey eyes.
And I didn’t blame her, to be honest. If I wasn’t betrothed and entrenched already, I may have faltered. What could be more exhilarating than sitting as an artist muse? It was in his studio that I got to know the simple girl. As I peered out the window for those countless cold mornings perfectly still she would sheepishly flitter behind him. I knew she was officially there to dust and wash and tidy, but I also saw her peek at my picture from time to time and yearned to know what she thought of my portrait. Inbetween lookin at my painted face, I saw her stare at the Master. As I sat that winter for t Vermeer, I noticed she took on more responsibility. She started laying out his colors, my colors, for him every morning. During my last few sittings, I saw her go up and down into the attic and she would return with her fingers colored in reds, oranges, browns and grays. I knew then she wasn’t just a maid. When I took a severe cold from the open window, I already knew she would replace me while I was gone. I imagined that when my family returned to purchase my portrait she would not be acting so sheepish anymore.
And I was right, as she darted into the shop that day she sauntered with a certain indignance and fire that I knew all the rumors at the market were true. Not only had Van Ruijven demanded to have her immortalized in paint forever, Vermeer had protected her from indecency as his own territory. Now, three men had heralded her sexuality and that was too great of a flood to contain. As she walked in, I knew certainly that she was his. She asked to speak to me in private and we went outside to the street under an alley, “Katherine, would you pierce my ear? The master needs me to wear earrings tomorrow for Van Ruijven’s portrait, and I’m afraid to do it myself. I’ve bought clove oil from your uncle. I may faint if you don’t assist.” I agreed and asked her to return again in two hours when the shop closed down. She was standing behind me right as I was about to turn the key to lock up for the night.
I took her worn hand in the backroom of Bakery and peered at her face. Here in the cellar of flour, sugar, die and the kiln, I peered at her porcelain mushy skin. I had no idea what color her hair was as it was always tucked tightly away underneath her cap,
“You know, you are allowed to let a few strands fall on your face. Wearing a tight cap doesn’t necessarily mean no one can hurt you.”
She looked up at me holding my needle and her eyes grew misty. She justified the fat tears streaming down her face with fear of the prick, but I knew that a hard working maid like this would never cry from pain. She had seen enough hardship in her life; her father’s injury, her sister’s death, her brother’s abandonment. I knew that the needle wasn’t causing her to let loose. It was my comment about her hair, her mirage of self-control. In the market, with her family and at work she feigned purity but she believed she already had lost her dignity. She was willingly running around town, buying medication and piercing her own body for a married master.
True, I was only two year older than her but I understood the intoxication of a man who quietly watched your ever move. I knew that attic, the aromas of the linseed oil and the brilliant light that shone through the windows that transformed you into a dove. She was lost upon becoming a maid, even though she was a hard-working Protestant of character. She lost the battle as soon as she dawned the doors of the Master’s house with her figure and her wide-set eyes. I tried to figure out a way to show her my compassion, but instead I gingerly dabbed the clove oil onto her right ear, the lobe he would paint. Her small chest rose and fall as I quickly pulled the skin tight. I pierced it abruptly so she didn’t dread the prick. Her hands gripped tightly unto the wicker chair and she then sighed relief,
I said gently, “The dread of the act is worse than the act itself…” She slightly smiled at me and then I added, “I am sorry you’ve been caught in the crossfire of those two. Remember, as a girl you really have no power at all.”
She looked into my eyes and for a moment I could tell she studied my floured complexion like the painter Vermeer once did in his studio. I could tell she wasn’t truly connecting with my eyes, but analyzing the blend of colors and the fall of my hair. I grew angry for a moment because I felt she was comparing my portrait to her own. She was certain that her portrait was painted with passion and not duty.
Without adequately responding to my words, she wished me a couple of “thankyous” and offered to pay me for my services. For a moment I was angry at her and realized I could not be. Alone in the backroom, I did allow myself anger for the men who abuse their position and fight over woman like prized jewelry. Forever, I would feel the injustice of the piercing of a young girls’ ears.
She was lost. Everyone woman who has been woed by a man like that understands. When you’ve been hooked you are completely unguarded. It’s only in abandonment that one realizes the folly of youth.