illustrator Aurore de La Morinerie
Who'd have thought my nose would get me places? It tilts towards my eyebrows, as if there's a bad smell under it, but painter man Lutma approves. He draws himself in the mirror all the time, pulling his face around like an idiot.
“Show your teeth, Sheba. Wrinkle your brow.”
I grin and frown. It's hard to keep up either expression, but he insists. He claims he can do both for an hour at a time, and then bets me the seashell on the windowsill I can't hold still for just as long. I love that shell, but if the wind changes I'm stuck with two lines between my brows, thick as charcoal sticks. I shake my head, but Lutma doesn't care, he's back behind the easel, chalking away. He remembers the way people look, like some do the words of a song. I kneel on the edge of the couch and study my shell. I live in a city that makes its money from trading in faraway places where sea shells like this are as common as the raindrops in my city. Hard to think this place was once a slick of mud, but Lutma likes the idea because he says his pictures grow out of the earth too. His colours are dug up from under the ground. He's particularly fond of a colour called “raw umber.”
“Look what it transforms into,” he says, sketching my features in a few quick lines, the paint thinned with linseed oil. Often times, his words are beyond me, just like the worlds he paints. I can't read or write and discover new words the way he does, but I have my shell.
“You know, it has travelled the world,” Lutma says. “Imagine, Sheba.”
Oh, I do imagine. I see a world where everything is as rich as the velvets he pins up to make a goddess's bedchamber. He scatters rose petals over the couch to disguise the stink of the drain under the window and wraps a necklace with pearls the size of goose eggs around my neck, heavy as the little weights I use to bag up flour and oats for Rachel, the cook. That's all I get to wear—if anything.
“Does you have to let him poke you?” asks Mathias, who takes the slops out for Fodor, the anatomist, who lives next door.
Foder cuts up bodies to help doctors learn about sicknesses in the world. Mathias once carried a bunch of toes out in his bucket and got chased by the street dogs. More often than not, it's ribbons of muscle, and once, something called sinus from a dead man's nose. Mathias knows what’s inside a body, but he's none too sure about what goes into a painting. I tell him that's how the world began, in a pool of paint. It's what painter man told me.
“He paints what we don't see,” I tell Mathias. “The kind of things you can't dig up with no scalpel.”
Mathias shivers. His mama died a few months back and he's afraid she'll come back and scold him, just as he did when she was still living. Mathias's mama called me a whore, but it's not true. I was too ashamed to tell Lutma, but he found out and boxed her ears in the middle of Jodenbreestraat. He's sharp, he is. He twists and turns a piece of fabric and creates gowns as fancy as anything a Queen might wear (or Madame Brueghel for that matter and some say she owns half of Amsterdam). Lutma looks at the world in its shadowy outlines and memorizes it as hard as I do my prayers. I lie for a long time in that dark world, but he draws me perfect. My breasts are hardly grown, but my belly is full and heavy, like a small sack of beans. He adds himself to the picture, watching over me. He paints himself as the god Jupiter, disguised as a satyr, even a rainfall of gold coins.
I walk into the studio and I never know what to expect. I like the dressing up, truth telling. Lutma gets the beautiful clothes from Six, one of the city's richest merchants. He exchanges them for paintings. Six found me when I was a baby, wrapped up in a dirty piece of sackcloth, abandoned under a market trestle table. The time: just before dawn. I was playing with a baby rattle, which had words carved on it, all clumsy: Bathsheba, 17 July, 1617. Six took me in, and, later, he'd asked Lutma to give me a job in his kitchens and that's where I've stayed, cleaning out the big coppers until I was old enough to carry them. Six says my employer is eternal, like Jupiter and the rest of the gods he paints.
“You'll be remembered five hundred years from now, Sheba, and so will your master. I'll be long dead, but you'll be alive to everyone who has the pleasure of looking at you.”
I like merchant Six, because he's as handsome as anyone I've ever seen. But what is five hundred years to me? I'm fourteen years old. There again, Rachel, the grumbly cook, had had her first baby by the time she was my age. Even though I'm no beauty, she says I must still be careful. But Lutma doesn't want me for babies. He christened me “Cloud Face” that first day in the studio.
“Clouds are constantly changing,” he'd explained. “I can watch them for hours and never tire and it's the same with you and all your wonderful expressions, Sheba.”
I don't tell many people what he said, because I think they might laugh, but I tell Mathias and he likes the idea. There again, he's a bit slow, and makes mistakes. He gets terrible beatings from Fodor, the anatomist, but he never cries. Brave little Mathias. I nurse his bruises and then I show him my shell.
“It comes all the way from Africky. And Africky is where people have skins the exact same colour as raw umber.”
His eyes shine with the boldness of such an idea, but, as it happens, he's recently seen a servant boy out walking in Jodenbreestraat, his skin a perfect match for painter man's favourite colour. “He had a gold ring in his ear, Sheba, big as this.” He proudly makes a circle with both thumbs. Mathias is beginning to see that the world travels way beyond the bricks and mortar of our city. He's finding out the hidden details, like Lutma does, and Fodor, the anatomist. Mathias says he wants to go to sea. Lutma laughs.
“I look at Sheba and see whole worlds in her smile,” he says. “You should do the same. You won't get seasick that way.”
Lutma has pointy teeth and flyaway hair that doesn't fall down in neat curls to his lace collar. His face is puffy like a potato before it's peeled and cooked; his hands are dotted with little scars from the burin and the drypoint he uses to press into his copper plates. He's kind, but forgetful when he works. My stomach often gurgles with hunger, but he paints on.
“Am I scared of this Jupiter you keep painting?” I ask.
Jupiter is like a King so there's no arguing with him, says painter man.
“He lives in the sky. He can make the weather change by snapping his fingers.”
“You change it too with your paints,” I say.
Lutma laughs. I think if a bear could laugh, it would laugh like him. “It takes me a lot longer, Sheba.”
True enough. Lutma spends many months on each of his paintings. He makes his own colours, heating up little pieces of lead with horse manure to create a white powder, thin as flour, or crushes Mexican shield lice, bought to him in smoky glass jars, to create a red so hot you might mistake it for a flame made solid. Even the prints, which are barely the width of my palm, take forever. He works hard at the copper plates, the veins on the back of his hands standing out like thick, blue worms.
This winter, Lutma has grown a silly moustache and prances around in a cape he's picked up in a bankrupt's sale. “Everything the poor man owned up for sale on the street,” he sighs. “But look at this cape. It's going to be worn by an emperor, over a silver buckle bigger than my head.” He demonstrates the look and it makes him look a proper buffoon. I fall back on the couch, laughing, my feet waving in the air.
“You need to wash, Sheba,” he suddenly says.
I stop my game, shocked. I'm proud of my white skin and nit-free hair but then I see what Lutma has seen. There is a small smudge of blood on the drape over the couch. I'm curious at first, but then scared. Lutma is obviously embarrassed by what has happened. Rachel puts me straight.
“It means you're a woman. And no woman is going to find a husband if she's forever stripping off. It's not decent, Sheba.”
I snort at her warnings, but the world keeps shoving its way in, like a fox intruding on a chicken coop. Sniff, sniff, then its head through the door and its snarling jaws going snap, snap, snappy. Gold digger. Whore. Not pretty, but cheap. Rachel warns me over and over: “Keep your wits about you. You can play it to your advantage. Suck him off, but don't let him poke inside.”
“Now, you're Ariodante,” Lutma whispers, picking up a new canvas and off we go again.
I'm Ariodante, whoever she might be. I'm pale skin, loose belly and nut-brown nipples. The world crashes away outside the open window, carts jam against the house walls, a child bellows and a horse whinnies in pain. Maybe a collision of some kind, or the child has run under the horse's legs and a bone has cracked and…I don't care.
Mathias pleads with me.
“Watch out, Sheba. Painter man is bankrupt.”
It happens suddenly, like a cloud ducking out of view. One minute, Lutma is riding high, the next, he crashes down like a butchered animal. For weeks at a time, there are visitors to the house, nosing out each and every valuable, getting ready for a sale. Six says I might have to find a new position, because Lutma can't keep up his household. The idea of living somewhere else seems as likely as my growing wings and flying out of the window. I hide away behind the studio drapes when the strangers come. I curl up on the windowsill and spy on them. Lutma stands, proud as he has ever looked in his fancy dress, but I know him well and I see in his eyes how this is destroying him. I pick up the sea shell and hold it tight. They won't take my shell. I hide it away in my bodice and then I reveal myself. The man in charge of the accounting smirks.
“You up for sale too?” he whispers, as I gallop past.
I run down to the kitchen and start working on the coppers. I rub so hard I lose the skin off my palms. The shell lies snug between my breasts. Mathias lies under the big oak table, chewing his fingernails. I pull him out by the elbow and scold him.
“Painter man will sort things out.”
“Maybe. But what you going to do while he does the sorting?”
I sit down on the floor next to Mathias, hugging him to me. The shell between my breasts makes itself felt as I pull him in closer. Mathias' cheek catches against its hard surface. His face is all surprise, but then curiosity wins out. His fingers are busy at my bodice.
“Copper man's shell from Africky,” he says, holding it up to the light.
I remember all the strange stories I've told him about the sea shell and that gives me hope. I can still tell my stories. There's no stealing them away inside some ledger. Let's see, once upon a time, gods ruled the earth. Then man came along and ate an apple he shouldn’t have, and things shifted about something terrible until Lutma and the painters started to grow whole worlds out of patches of earth, mixed up with oil. This is the story I tell Mathias, as the strangers' feet tramp up and down on the floorboards above us. As I tell my story, I turn the shell round and round in the palms of my hands; inside it, lie a thousand worlds. If someone owns this shell, they really are richer than any merchant, but not as rich as Lutma. “Cloud Face,” he'd called me, changeable, but unforgettable, and alive forever and always in his paintings. That's his true legacy, but I'll be keeping my shell all the same.