A Young Wife
MINKE HEARD HIS velvety voice downstairs; the visitor from Amsterdam must have arrived. Sander DeVries was his name. A wealthy man, according to rumor, and a distant relative, although in the Netherlands everyone was a distant relative. He owned a ship or ships or something. He had children older than Minke and a wife who was dying. This was what she knew.
She lay on the floor peering down the ladder to the entry of the kitchen. Her mother’s high-pitched laugh betrayed nervousness. Her older sister, Fenna, who at sixteen had the most commanding voice, asked for his coat and scarf, inviting him to sit. Her father cleared his throat. In town, everyone would be talking about this visit. A stranger in Enkhuizen was an event.
She swung her feet around and descended the ladder to the middle rung, where she hung on, leaning forward to catch a glimpse of him. She was supposed to stay out of sight because Fenna had already laid claim to the position he was expected to offer. Fenna was the thicker, stronger of the two sisters. Fenna with her certainty and coarse sense of humor had the stomach for a dying woman.
In his lovely, smooth voice, Meneer* DeVries spoke of his automobile, the icy condition of the roads, and the stale smell of the sea here in Enkhuizen and his regret that over the years their families had not been closer. In that silken voice, he explained it was his Elisabeth’s idea that one of the van Aisma girls be asked to come. Elisabeth was, as they knew, of course, the daughter of Papa’s much older cousin, Klara, a name Minke recognized as that of the woman whose funeral she had attended in Leeuwarden five years earlier. Meneer’s voice became grave. “This is work for a person of great patience,” he said.
“I’m patient,” Fenna said quickly.
“And what of the other girl?” He was talking about her! She stepped quietly down the ladder to peek into the parlor. He sat at the family table, facing in her direction, his fingers drumming the wooden surface, surrounded by Fenna, Mama, and Papa.
“Well, here’s the other one!” Minke realized he was talking to her, that the conversation had stopped, that he’d caught her spying. Feeling her face redden, she entered the room. He stood, his chair scraping against the floor. He was as tall as her father, who was himself the tallest man in town. But where Papa was rail-thin, Meneer DeVries had the powerful look of an athlete. He had ginger-colored hair and mustache, and a chiseled, handsome face.
Why, Minke wondered, noticing for the first time, had their mother ever allowed Fenna to wear that outgrown dress for company? The dress was so tight at the waist and the bodice that Fenna’s breasts strained against the material. Fenna cared nothing for her looks. Her hair was the same white-blond as Minke’s but lacked luster. Her blue eyes bulged slightly, and her skin was ruddy from sunburn. She twitched with annoyance at Minke’s intrusion.
“Please.” Meneer DeVries pulled his chair from the table. He stared at Minke so intently that she thought something was expected from her, but she could not think what. “Do sit down,” he said, not taking his eyes from her. She glanced for permission at Mama, who shrugged in confusion. The visit was not going as Mama had expected.
“I’m going to Amsterdam with Meneer DeVries.” Fenna’s voice held an edge.
Mama laughed again from nerves. She badly wanted this job for Fenna, who was trouble in the household. In fact, Minke wanted her gone as well and felt guilty for it, but it had been difficult going through school in Fenna’s wake. Doing anything in Fenna’s wake. The boys expected Minke to be loose. The girls kept their distance. Better for Fenna to be far away in Amsterdam.
Minke slipped into the empty chair Meneer had offered, not knowing what else to do with herself.
“Thank our guest, Minke,” Mama said, and Minke tipped her face to him and said in a near whisper, “Thank you, Meneer DeVries.”
“So, Minke, is it?” he said. “That’s a very pretty name.”
She looked down at her lap. She had been told to stay out of the parlor today, and here she was drawing the attention.
“And you would be the elder sister?”
“She’s younger,” Fenna said.
He considered this a moment, then paced about the table, his hands locked behind his back. He stopped behind Fenna. “Fenna, you’re very like my Elisabeth. Two peas in a pod.” Fenna beamed. She could be cute in an impish way when she smiled. “But that is why I am now glad to meet your sister.”
No one said anything. It didn’t exactly make sense. Minke had nothing to do with this arrangement. Meneer DeVries shut his eyes and canted his face toward the ceiling. It was a complete change in mood, as though just the mention of his ill wife had overcome him. His massive hands landed on Fenna’s shoulders. “My wife is a strong-willed woman, and I suspect that you too are strong-willed.”
“I am,” Fenna said, and Minke wondered how he knew that so quickly.
He shook his head. “Such a combination won’t succeed. In the company of a strong-willed woman, my wife will fight, refuse medicine, disobey. In her final days, she needs a quieter soul. I see this quality in Minke; it is Minke who should come.”
Fenna whipped around and gripped his hands as if laying claim. “But that’s not fair,” she said. “It’s been decided!”
“That’s precisely right,” Meneer DeVries said. “I have decided.”
“Mama?” Minke felt utter confusion.
“Meneer DeVries, are we to understand this correctly? That you’ve decided against Fenna in favor of Minke to nurse your wife?” Mama asked.
Meneer DeVries nodded and withdrew his hands from Fenna’s grip.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d stayed upstairs like you were supposed to,” Fenna said.
“It’s not my fault,” Minke said.
“She gets everything she wants, and she always has,” Fenna said to Mama. “You and Papa always favor her over me.”
Oh, she could make Minke so angry with that old, utterly false complaint. Fenna had always ruled the roost with her demands and tantrums. Mama and Papa spent so much time worrying over her that Minke sometimes felt invisible.
“Fenna, we meant for you to have the post.” Mama was as red as a beet.
“And anyway, I don’t even—” Minke began but stopped herself. Want it, she was going to say. Taking care of a sick woman held no appeal for her. She addressed Meneer DeVries. “Fenna would do a very good job for you, Meneer.”
“She’s far too spirited for the work, as I suspected.”
“Papa, do something,” Fenna implored.
Papa opened his hands in resignation.
Meneer DeVries, still standing behind Fenna, patted her cheeks lightly with both hands. “There, there,” he said. “I am terribly sorry this upset you, but it’s such a delicate matter with Elisabeth.” Fenna was quiet from then on, following Meneer with her eyes as he discussed with Mama and Papa the payment arrangements.
MINKE MADE THE journey with Meneer DeVries in his shiny yellow car. “A Spijker,” he said. The car’s heater blasted against her feet, which swelled painfully in her tight boots. She stared straight ahead, excited by the terrific speed, terrified when Meneer DeVries slammed on the brakes behind horses and carts. He pulled levers and adjusted knobs. He spun the wheel, and she couldn’t take her eyes from his wonderful honey-colored gloves. Noticing that she was admiring them, he splayed the fingers of both hands and said, “Pigskin. The supplest of leathers.”
Just then the car slid sideways, tipped sharply to the right, and came to a heaving stop, followed by utter silence.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. It was her fault for distracting him. They’d gone off the road and landed in the drainage ditch at such an angle that outside her window she could see only snow and outside his window, only sky.
He stared at the wheel as if in disbelief and, with great effort, pushed open the door, which fell back against him from gravity; he finally managed to squeeze through and trudged up the embankment, where she could see his bottom half pacing up and down the road. She never should have come. It was a mistake, and already he no doubt hated her for causing this accident. She didn’t even know if she’d have the strength to climb out as he had. Fenna would have been able to. Indeed, Fenna would already be outside doing something. Running down the road for help, shouting out orders even. Meneer DeVries’s face appeared in the open window. “You steer the car and I’ll push.”
Before she knew what was happening, he was reaching in through the window to pull her—drag her, really—from the passenger side into the driver’s seat while she scrambled to get her feet under her somehow, an almost impossible task given her heavy coat, the confined space, and levers that stuck out every which way.
When she was behind the wheel, he gave her a lesson, if you could call it that. He put a gloved hand first on her right leg. The pedal under that foot was for the gas, and gas was what moved the car. Everybody knew that much, even people without cars. Then he laid his hand on her left leg. That pedal was called the clutch, and she was supposed to let it out slowly while pushing down on the gas at the same time to engage the gear so the car would go forward.
It went forward all right, with a violent lurch and a terrible grinding sound before it stopped cold. Meneer turned the crank at the front of the car so she could try again. The exertion made his face glisten with sweat.
She tried again and again, tears running down her cheeks in frustration and feeling less capable each time. But on perhaps the sixth try, something felt different. Just as her feet passed each other on the pedals, there came a feeling both soft and solid, and she knew to push on the gas pedal just a hair at first, and a split second later, to press it to the floor. The car jumped up the embankment almost to the road before coming to a stop with the same awful grinding sound as before. But they were free. She’d done it. Meneer was still in the ditch, with an exultant smile on his face, his lovely camel-hair coat splattered, his gloves blackened from wet snow. For the remainder of the trip—even though he was sloppy with mud and the car stank of wet wool—he beamed at her. “Well, well,” he said. “I see I selected a very capable girl.”
SHE HAD BEEN to Amsterdam once as a child but had little memory of its many converging streets, or the wide canals that threaded the city, so much deeper and darker than the canals at home. The Spijker came to a stop next to a canal at a row of stone houses, twice as high as the houses at home and all with hoisting beams and splendid facades that came to high peaks decorated in scrollwork.
At home, the houses had only a front and a back door, and the front door stayed shut except for weddings and funerals. But this house had two doors side by side at the front. The door on the right gave onto storage for his imports, Meneer explained, opening the one on the left and ushering Minke inside. She found herself at the foot of a steep, curving staircase, illuminated by gaslight. She didn’t recognize the heavy odor but supposed it was the smell of illness.
She followed his broad back up to a landing where she could see quickly into a parlor before he hurried her on. The shades were pulled, the room was hot, and she had the impression of a great deal of cloth-covered furniture, too much for the room. The odor was more pronounced on the landing.
She hadn’t been afraid of what was to come until now; she didn’t know what illness his wife, Mevrouw DeVries, suffered from, what to expect or what to do. She’d heard stories of the grotesque deaths some people suffered, how they sometimes begged to die. When her uncle died, she’d seen him only afterward, tidy and sunken-faced in his coffin. And when her grandmother had become ill, she’d watched as Mama braided her hair and bathed her. Minke had never attended anyone except for Fenna, who took to her bed at the first sign of a cough.
Another staircase across the landing rose to a second landing, where there was a door ajar to a darkened room. Minke sensed movement inside and caught a quick glimpse of a woman’s pale face. After that the house was a warren of short staircases and landings zigzagging to a large room at the top, the sickroom, from the smell of it. It had two closet beds against the right-hand wall, both with the doors drawn. A small table and chair stood next to one of the beds, and on the table were bottles of medicine. Like the rest of the house, the room was dark, cluttered, and stuffy.
Meneer DeVries, in his soft voice, announced that he’d brought a wonderful girl to help. He pulled open the door to one of the closet beds and leaned in, blocking Minke’s view. When he stood back, Minke had a shock. The woman’s face seemed a skull covered in the palest translucent skin. Her eyes were unnaturally large. Her hair hung in dark strands, unwashed, but her gown was pure white, bleached and starched and ironed so stiffly that its collar came to painful-looking points against her wasting neck. Minke wanted to throw open a window. She was afraid she would gag.
“Come!” Meneer DeVries motioned Minke in with the enthusiasm of a man delivering a wonderful prize. “Elisabeth, this is Minke, your relative from Enkhuizen.” He patted the side of the bed, and Minke did as instructed, using the stepstool to climb up and sit on the side of the bed. She looked down on Mevrouw DeVries, whose large eyes took Minke in fully—her face, her clothing, her hands.
“I’m here to care for you.”
Meneer DeVries cleared his throat, and when Minke turned, she saw that two more people had entered the room. “My son, Willem. We all call him Pim. My daughter, Griet.”
Minke knew right away that Griet’s had been the face in the shadow. Griet was about Minke’s age, perhaps a year older. She had her father’s ginger-gold hair and a well-fed look about her. Her eyes darted from Minke to her father. Pim was smaller than his sister but seemed several years older.
“So, Enkhuizen, is it?” Griet looked her over, top to toe.
“Where is that, Papa?” Griet turned to her father. “I mean”—she waved a hand as if to take in the whole country—“I just can’t place it.”
“The Zuiderzee,” Pim answered. He had a wide forehead and stiff posture.
“Minke drove us out of a ditch!” Meneer DeVries beamed at her. “Did you hear that, Elisabeth? We veered off the road, and Minke saved the day.”
“You drove Papa’s car?” Griet turned to her father. “I want to drive the car. Why can’t I drive the car?”
Meneer DeVries shook his head with impatience. “We were stuck,” he said. He turned abruptly and pulled open the doors to the second bed, addressing Minke. “You’re to sleep here with the doors open in case my wife should need you. Dinner at half past.”
He ushered his children from the room, leaving Minke alone with her patient. In her whole life, she had never slept all by herself in a bed. She had shared a bed with Mama and Papa when she was little, and for the past six years, she’d shared a bed with Fenna.
“You must excuse them,” Mevrouw DeVries whispered. She was sitting up taller, propped by pillows. She raised her shoulders and dropped them. “Sander has let them do what they like.”
“It must be difficult for them to see you ill,” Minke said.
She looked beyond Minke to the window. “They’ll survive.”
“I only meant—”
Mevrouw winced briefly, in pain. “I should be turned twice a day,” she said quietly. “Bedsores.” She drifted off, eyes half shut, then open again. “When I need my medicine—” She took a quick breath. “Bring it immediately, no matter what. Anywhere in the house. Feel.” She guided Minke’s hand to the side of her abdomen. Minke’s hand lay on something hard and misshapen as a stone. She felt both revulsion and a determination not to take her hand away. If Elisabeth had to live with this, Minke could certainly bear to touch it. She shut her eyes, and when she opened them, Mevrouw DeVries had fallen asleep.
Very slowly, Minke removed her hand and tried to get her bearings. She missed home already. She wanted her mother. Mama would know how to proceed. Minke cracked open the window to breathe in the cold air and clear her head. Across the canal were more houses just like the one she was in—made of gray stone and with fancy carved scrolls at their peaks. She counted the stories: six. She’d never seen such tall buildings except for the Drommedaris—a large fortress—in Enkhuizen and the Westerkerk, of course. At home the houses were small, with the kitchen, parlor, and beds downstairs and storage in the attic.
She bit her lip. What would Mama do? She scanned the room. Mama would say, First things first. Before it grew dark, she must unpack. She slipped her few belongings into the drawers of the wardrobe and hung up her two dresses, keeping an eye on Mevrouw.
Moments after she was done, the door opened. Meneer DeVries entered carrying an oil lamp. Mevrouw DeVries did not stir. He raised the lamp to his wife’s face. “She was beautiful once, like you,” he said. Minke glanced quickly down at the floor, uncomfortable that he would say such a thing in front of his wife. “I’ve come to tell you it’s time for dinner.”
GASLIGHTS BURNED IN the dining room. Pim and Griet stood side by side behind their chairs at a long table, waiting. Minke marveled at the furniture, which was large and strange, not at all what they had at home. And the walls had tapestries of Chinese men scowling out. Even the table service was bizarre, with a spinning island at the center that held colorful platters and bowls. The DeVrieses used beautifully decorated metal pots in all sizes and shapes, with fabulous designs of animals and women. She wondered who had cooked the meal. Certainly not Griet, who sat with her arms folded, looking sullen.
“Papa tells us you’re a nurse,” Pim said, tucking a linen napkin beneath his chin.
She eyed Meneer DeVries, who astonished her by nodding in affirmation. Well, best not contradict him, although why he would fib was a mystery to her.
“She’s too young to be a nurse,” Griet said, as if Minke weren’t present. “She’ll die, you know. The doctors have said. I’m sure Papa told you.”
The serving girl entered just then, and the cook came to the open door to peer from the steamy kitchen at Minke, who smiled and said hello.
“Did you hear what I said?” Griet asked.
“Of course,” Minke responded.
“I’ll care for her as if she were my own mother.”
“I’m very busy,” Griet said, pouting. “If that’s what you mean.”
“I only meant what I said.”
Meneer DeVries gave her an approving look that said she had passed a test of some sort. After that, the family talked with one another as if Minke weren’t present, which suited her fine. What she learned of them was this: Meneer DeVries was anxious about his business. In fact, all three of them were anxious. It had something to do with new laws from The Hague, with the possibility of war, rumors about the confiscation of ships sailing under Dutch colors. Minke understood none of it, only that Meneer was worried. It was easier for her to follow when the conversation turned to the children. Pim was a student at the university, studying the law, and Griet was delaying her marriage because of her mother’s illness. She was clearly unhappy about it, worried her fiancé wouldn’t wait. She complained about all there was to do—the mending and washing and so on. “I hope you sew,” she said to Minke after they’d finished dessert.
“I enjoy sewing a great deal,” Minke said. “I made this dress.” She opened her arms to show it off.
“She can help with the wedding dress, then,” Griet said to her father.
“First things first,” Meneer DeVries said. “Minke will have a great deal to do.”
IN THE MORNING, Minke washed at the basin. Should she wake Mevrouw DeVries? No. Let her sleep. It was her own decision, and no one was there to tell her otherwise. She opened the window to air the room, which smelled of urine. The chill air woke Mevrouw DeVries. “Lovely,” she said.
“Do you take breakfast, Mevrouw DeVries?”
The woman studied her. “You’re very young. Please call me Elisabeth.”
“I’m fifteen,” Minke said, confounded by the request. To call a grown woman by her given name was improper, but she would try. “Shall I bring tea?”
Elisabeth shut her eyes.
Minke went into the hall, intending to go to the kitchen, but a tray had been left at the door. Coffee, two poached eggs. Everything was cold. Tomorrow she would wake earlier.
A knock came as Minke was trying to spoon a tiny amount of egg between Mevrouw DeVries’s parched lips. “Yes?” she said.
Pim opened the door but seemed hesitant to enter.
“Ah, my sweet son, the advocate, is here,” Elisabeth said, smiling.
“Not yet,” Pim said, blushing. “I mean I’m not a lawyer yet. Not that I’m not here.”
“You’ve noticed our little Minke,” Elisabeth said, causing Pim to blush more deeply. Minke understood what it was that made Pim’s posture seem odd. He had the start of a hunchback; his curved spine had thrust his head permanently forward.
“Good morning, Mother.” Griet’s voice was shrill. She kissed her mother’s cheek, then picked up the bottle of morphine. “How much has she had, Minke?”
“Nothing,” Minke said. “She’s not had pain. When does the doctor come?”
“What can a doctor do?”
Minke was alarmed again at what this family said in front of Elisabeth, but the older woman seemed unfazed. “Who provides the morphine if not the doctor?”
“Papa gets it. We’ll inject it when she can no longer swallow. Right, Mother?”
“So I understand,” Elisabeth said. Minke was struck by the woman’s passivity, quite the opposite of what she had expected, given Meneer DeVries’s description to Fenna.
“How much do I give?” Minke asked.
“Mix it with sugar syrup, give a little. If it doesn’t work, give more. You’re the nurse,” Griet said.
After the children left, Minke could hear Griet calling out to the housekeeper and the cook, her voice plaintive at first, then rising to a shout when they didn’t come quickly enough. Elisabeth was sleeping again.
Now what to do? It was still early, and the day stretched out before her. She ran a finger along the decorative trim of the wardrobe and came up with a smudge of dust. She could hear people in the house. The bell ringing at the door, people coming and going downstairs. Visitors? But none for Elisabeth. Minke used her cloth to clean dust from tabletops and soot from the sill. She ran it over the photographs on the wall and the objects that adorned the surfaces. Such odd things Elisabeth had. Minke peeked into a small ornamental purse, dusty but colorful and thickly embroidered with the tiniest beads. Inside was a pot of rouge. On another table lay a brown object with a small opening at the top that was lined with a wide collar of dented silver. It surprised her with its lightness, and on closer inspection, she saw it was a gourd of some type, hollowed. A long silver straw with a porous silver bulb stuck out of the opening on top.
“Maté,” Elisabeth said, causing Minke to fumble with the item.
Elisabeth motioned her to the bed, took the silver straw in her mouth, and whispered, “The bombilla. To drink their special tea. Their yerba maté.”
“What are gauchos?”
“Horsemen in Argentina. Adorned in silver. Their saddles, their horses. Oh, how they ride.”
“You’ve seen them?”
“Once.” Elisabeth pointed to a small wooden statue on a shelf. It was of a man, roughly carved and painted, with a slouch hat, black beard, and wide red pantaloons stuffed into high black boots. Without warning, she threw back her head and let out a terrifying groan, more animal than human.
Hands trembling, Minke immediately mixed sugar and water together in a small dish and added the morphine from its dark brown bottle, a teaspoonful, as Griet had instructed. She pulled Elisabeth up as far as she dared—the woman was light in her arms—and slipped the spoon between her lips. Elisabeth sank back against the pillow, her face vacant.
Minke sat at the bedside, shaken. What if she’d given too much? She smoothed the woman’s forehead, pulled the covers over her, and was reassured by her steady breathing. She was shocked anew to see how clearly visible Elisabeth’s skull was beneath her skin, how atrocious her hair, which had been braided once but had grown out and was loose at the roots. Minke undid the clasp, meaning only to rebraid it, but found it incredibly dirty. “Shall I wash it?” she whispered.
The task took the afternoon. Minke washed one small section of hair at a time, then dried it with a towel to keep Elisabeth’s bed from becoming damp. Elisabeth’s hair, which had seemed the color of lead, was jet black, threaded with silver. When the hair was mostly dry, Minke spread it over the pillow and combed it smooth, and when that was done, she braided it back into its thin rope. Through it all, Elisabeth slept.
Meneer DeVries came into the room as Minke was finishing. He watched her with a fatherly pride. She felt very pleased with herself for her ingenuity, and this only the first day.
“Aha,” he said. “You’ve discovered the yerba maté cup!”
“It’s unusual,” Minke whispered.
“Then it’s yours,” he said.
“But it belongs to Mevrouw DeVries.”
He glanced at his wife and shrugged.
“DID I HEAR Mother cry out today?” Griet said at dinner. “I thought I did.” She looked from her brother to her father for corroboration.
“She had pain,” Minke said. “I administered the morphine immediately.”
“Do you have a beau?” Griet asked, flashing the shiny ring on her finger at Minke.
Minke blushed and shook her head. Griet kept her so off balance.
“There, Pim,” Griet said, smirking. “I’ve asked her. Now the field is yours.”
“Oh, Griet, for God’s sake,” Pim said, and then to Minke, “I apologize for my sister. It seems that’s all I do.”
“But you’re the one who wants to know,” Griet insisted.
“Your mother told me about the gauchos,” Minke said, changing the subject and sparing poor Pim.
“Did she now!” Meneer DeVries became alert. “Yes. She accompanied me once to Buenos Aires. We saw them on an outing to the countryside.”
“They are such filthy creatures,” Griet said.
And so was your mother’s hair. Minke wished she had the nerve to say that aloud. It was a disgrace. “So you’ve seen them, too? The gauchos?”
“No, of course not, but how could they possibly be clean? They’re outdoors all the time, and they bed down with their horses. Right, Papa?”
Meneer DeVries gave his daughter an indulgent smile. “What did Elisabeth tell you about the gauchos, Minke?”
“They thunder across the fields on horses decked with silver.” Elisabeth hadn’t said exactly that, but it was how Minke pictured the scene.
“The pampas,” Griet said. “In Argentina they’re called the pampas. And anyway, they’re not fields. They’re much bigger. They’re pampas.”
“The pampas, then,” Minke said. “Even better.”
“It isn’t better or worse,” Griet said. “It’s just the correct word. That’s all.”
FROM THEN ON Minke took as many meals as she could in the room with Elisabeth. She’d lost her appetite because of the constant smell, her task of emptying the bedpan several times a day, and of doing for Elisabeth what she’d only ever done for herself. She grew bolder, bathing Elisabeth daily because it must be especially important to someone who spent all her days in bed. Not only that, but Elisabeth visibly relaxed into the warmth of Minke’s skin moving over hers.
The first time, the process took forever to figure out, but she finally devised a workable plan. She helped Elisabeth roll to the forward edge of the bed so she could slip a length of oilcloth under her and cover it with a towel. She then very gently placed Elisabeth on the towel. While she was being moved, Elisabeth wrapped her arms around Minke’s neck and hung on with surprising strength.
Minke washed one arm with warm water, then a warm rinse and a towel dry before moving on to the next, then each leg. Trying to appear confident in spite of her nervousness, she reached under the covers and washed Elisabeth’s breasts, watching her face for the slightest expression of shock or distaste; finding none, she gently pulled Elisabeth’s legs open to wash the area there. Elisabeth did not resist. Nor did she meet Minke’s eyes. With no experience in any of this, Minke acted on a single instinct: It was what she would want were she in Elisabeth’s condition. When she was finished, she removed the towel and oilcloth. She had never felt such intimacy with anyone. She knew Elisabeth’s body everywhere, the bones in particular, the way they connected with tendons and sinew, ball and socket, the spine like a row of knots.
WEEKS PASSED, BLENDING into one another. Outside Minke’s window, the canal sealed over with black ice, softened during a thaw, and froze solid again. People skated past the house during the deepest of the freezes, and Minke wished she could be with them, laughing and racing instead of sitting in the quiet room with its expectation of death.
Meneer began to make it a practice to come to the room at dusk after a day of work. He often seemed harried and paced the small room with his hands clasped behind his back, talking with Elisabeth or, it seemed, more at her than with her, as she said very little. He spoke of what he read in the newspapers, of rumors that abounded all over Amsterdam. A crackdown of some sort was expected. That’s all Minke could glean from what he said. When he’d calmed himself, he would take a chair and draw it to Elisabeth’s bed. For her part, Minke drew her own chair to the far corner of the room, near the window, to allow the DeVrieses some privacy.
If Elisabeth was fast asleep, and increasingly, this was the case, Meneer would kiss her tenderly, pull the covers up to her chin, close the cabinet door, and draw his chair close to Minke’s at the window. Sometimes he spoke a little, asking her about the day. Other times he sat in silence. One evening he seemed particularly upset. He didn’t even try to speak to Elisabeth but brought his chair to the window and sat, his leg quivering in agitation.
“What’s the matter?” It felt like an intrusion into Meneer’s private life to ask him such a thing, but it would be worse to say nothing when he was in such a terrible state.
“The damn government,” he said.
He seemed about to say something else but shook his head sharply as though to dislodge whatever thought was there. “I have too much on my mind,” he said.
“It must be so difficult,” she said. “You work so hard and your wife is so ill. I can’t imagine. And while I understand none of it, I hear you speak of problems having to do with your business. It’s a great deal for one person to carry.”
He gave her such a lovely sweet smile that she felt very drawn to him. “I don’t want to worry you.” He tipped her face to the light. “You’re doing a splendid job, the jewel in the household, if you ask me. Elisabeth adores you.” He looked long into her eyes. “And I as well.” He sat back in his chair. She could barely see him in the low light. “What do you think of us?”
The only answer was one she dared not utter—that it shocked her how little attention Elisabeth received from the children. But she had to say something. “You’re all quite different from one another.”
He burst out laughing. “A diplomat!” he said. “Did you hear that, Elisabeth?”
THE HARD SWELLING on Elisabeth’s abdomen grew. Her pain came more often, and when it did, it was severe, sudden, and caused her to scream out. Minke mixed the morphine, then raised Elisabeth up a bit so it would be easier to swallow. From the time Elisabeth asked for the morphine to the time Minke was able to pour it into a spoon and administer it—her hands steadier now that she was experienced—Elisabeth’s screams, Alstublieft, Alstublieft, please, please, became so loud she could be heard all along the street, or so Griet said. One of these times, Griet came into the room to ask why Minke couldn’t move more quickly to ease her mother’s suffering. “The neighbors will think we’re beating her,” Griet said. “She mustn’t shout so.”
Minke said she was sorry, that she knew how difficult it must be for Griet to hear her mother’s distress. She would try to do better in the future. She had learned to speak to Griet this way. To agree with her and mollify her, even when she was furious and knew there was nothing she could do better.
“I hope this doesn’t happen to me when I’m old. I’ll kill myself first,” Griet said to her.
Minke busied herself with the medicines. She liked to keep the table orderly, the spoon clean, the sugar already dissolved into a syrup.
“Is she asleep?” Griet asked.
Wasn’t it obvious?
Griet took up the bottle of morphine, poured some into the spoon, and swallowed it.
“Are you mad?”
“It’s lovely,” Griet said, her face relaxing into a far-off smile. “Have you tried it?”
“Of course not.” Minke snatched the bottle from the table. “Your mother needs this.”
“There’s plenty more, believe me,” Griet said vaguely. The effects of the morphine had been immediate. “Papa gets it from the Indies. Or the coca leaves or opium or something. I don’t know exactly. All I know is it feels divine.”
Minke looked Griet in the eye. “Then you must ask him for your own and not use your mother’s.”
Griet smiled sweetly at Minke. “Papa sails in three weeks, you know. Whether Mother is dead or alive.”
That did it. She took Griet by the arm and pulled her into the hall.
“What are you doing!” Griet squirmed clumsily, still giggling. “Who do you think you are?”
“What if she hears you?” Minke said. “Don’t say those things in her presence.”
“You can’t tell me how to behave, and I can say whatever I like.”
“But she’s your mother!”
“She’s as good as dead. Just look at her. I wish she’d hurry up and die.”
Minke hit Griet with the back of the fist that still contained the bottle of morphine, letting it smash to the floor. Griet grabbed at Minke for balance, and they both fell on the shards. Immediately, the housekeeper, Julianna, was there, dragging them both to their feet. She made them face each other and apologize. Minke crossed her fingers behind her back and did as she was told, just as she used to with Fenna. Griet got away with saying nothing.
“You, miss, come with me,” Julianna said to Minke.
“You’re in for it now,” Griet said.
Minke followed Julianna’s swaying bottom, dreading what was about to happen. She fully expected to be taken to Meneer, told on, and fired. But Julianna went down all the landings to the first floor, through the kitchen door, and once inside she wheeled around, a big smile across her face. “Slapped her, did you?” She threw back her head, laughing. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“She was saying terrible things, taking Elisabeth’s medicine.”
“I’m not allowed to lay a hand on either of them, not that the boy ever needed it.”
“You’re not angry?”
Julianna shook her head. “Quick. Come see.” She led the way through a door at the front of the kitchen, down a few steps to a crowded warehouse. She pulled back a curtain of heavy canvas and shone the lamp first on her own devilishly grinning face and then onto what was inside. Shelves and shelves of textiles, brocades, silks in beautiful green and gold. She lifted the lids off trunks that held more treasures, dusty but still beautiful—bronze statues, intricately carved wooden animals and ivory fans. Julianna beamed and pointed to a dozen or more boxes neatly stacked. “Open,” she said.
Inside were dozens of tiny brown bottles just like the ones for Elisabeth’s morphine. Julianna’s head bobbed with expectation. “You see?”
“Yes, but what is all this?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Once I knew everything, but now Mevrouw is sick and I am no longer permitted to speak with her. What have you heard? What’s to become of things when she dies?”
“I don’t know,” Minke said. “Griet said Meneer sails in several weeks.” Immediately, she realized she should have kept her mouth shut. This was gossip of the lowest sort.
“This was one of the finest households in Amsterdam.”
“I think it’s quite grand,” Minke said.
Julianna shook her head adamantly. “A different house when the father was alive.”
“Pim and Griet’s.”
“He isn’t their father,” Julianna said, as though Minke should have known. “He came sniffing around before that poor man was cold in his grave. Him with his honey voice and his flowers.” She pointed to the stacks of boxes. “And that.”
“He loves Elisabeth very much.”
“Elisabeth, is it?”
“I wish the children came more often to see her.”
“Spoiled to the bone, that Griet is. And Pim. Poor little thing. He can’t bear it. He sobs and carries on. It’s not good for Elisabeth to see too much of him. It’s as though he were dying and not she. She’s the only decent one in the lot.”
“We mustn’t talk this way about them,” Minke said.
“What way? It’s the truth. They’ll both be gone soon enough. Her to her maker, and him? Who knows?”
“He has business interests around the world. He’s told me about it.”
Julianna rocked with laughter. “Right,” she said.
AT DINNER THAT night, Griet had a bruise on the side of her face. Minke was sure she would be fired for what she had done. And while she would be happy to be far away from Griet, who would tend to Elisabeth? She dreaded what Meneer DeVries would say, but if he fired her, she would tell him everything—what Griet had said and done.
But he said nothing. Didn’t he know? He couldn’t have failed to see the bruise. After dinner, Pim came to Elisabeth’s room. Minke, leaning on the windowsill, got up to leave, to let him be alone with his mother, but he stopped her. “It’s the way Griet is. She’s been indulged. No one blames you.”
“She hates me,” Minke whispered. “From the beginning.”
“Of course she does,” Pim said. “Why do you think you haven’t met the fiancé?”
“There really is a fiancé?”
Pim grinned. “Griet’s a brat, but she’s not stupid.” He glanced at his sleeping mother, and tears welled in his eyes, wetting his cheeks. He wiped them away and turned from her.
Just then Meneer DeVries entered the room, looking over the tops of his spectacles. “You mustn’t keep Minke from her work, Pim.”
“We were only chatting.”
“You’d do better to chat with your mother,” Meneer DeVries said.
Pim turned, bowed stiffly, and left.
“I hope he wasn’t bothering you,” Meneer DeVries said.
“Not at all, Meneer DeVries.”
“You must call me Sander.”
It was difficult enough to call Elisabeth by her first name, but another fish altogether with a man.
“You’re fatigued.” He placed his large hands gently on her shoulders, warming them.
“Yes,” she said. Every night, at the slightest noise from Elisabeth, Minke’s eyes opened wide. If a second sound came, she bolted from bed to check. When she went back to bed, there she’d be, fully awake, her mind racing.
“How can I help you?”
“It will pass, Meneer.”
He slipped his hands about her waist, smiling broadly and looking from Minke to Elisabeth in her closet bed, half sitting, her eyes slightly open. She could be awake or asleep. It was difficult to know lately. “Elisabeth’s waist was as slim as yours once.” Meneer DeVries squeezed his hands harder, thumb to thumb and pinkie to pinkie. Minke drew in her breath sharply, from surprise at what he was doing, and the effort made her waist even smaller. “There!” he said triumphantly. She placed her hands over his, intending to take them from her waist, but he held firm. “No need to be embarrassed, right, Elisabeth?”
Elisabeth lay quietly. “I must see to her,” Minke said.
“In a moment, but first, over there in the storage.” Meneer let go and pointed to the cupboard beneath the window. “Open it and remove the box, please.”
Minke swung up the lid, reached in, and found a long, heavy box made of lustrous dark wood.
“Look inside,” he instructed. She sat on her bed with the box on her lap and lifted the lid. Inside was a silver-handled blade in a sheath. “It’s called a facón.”
Minke lifted it, feeling a thrill pass through her. The sheath was beautiful, decorated and embossed with a tree design and a pair of clasped hands.
“Let me show you how it’s worn.” Meneer DeVries had her stand with her back to him. She jumped when he slid the cool knife, sheath and all, under the waistband of her skirt at the back. “You wear it in the back, this way, so if you’re thrown from your horse, you won’t fall upon your sword and die.”
The feel was extraordinary, cold against the thin fabric of her chemise and so terribly heavy that she had to widen her stance to support it.
“Tell her about the thunderstorms, Sander,” Elisabeth said, and Minke jumped again. So she was awake.
“You tell her, my dear.”
Elisabeth pushed wider the door to her bed. Her face looked lively. “One crash after the other. Lights up the whole earth. The sound roars for hours. Terrifying.” She fell back on her pillow and shut her eyes. “Magnificent.”
MINKE MARKED THE level of morphine in the bottle by tying a strand of her translucent hair around it. After giving Elisabeth each dose, she could adjust the hair in minuscule amounts, the better to see if Griet had slipped in and taken any of it. She didn’t care that Griet might take the morphine. But it mattered very much that there should be enough for Elisabeth. She didn’t believe there was an endless supply; if they ran out, Elisabeth would suffer.
As it was, Elisabeth had entered a new phase in which she mostly slept and had little use for the bedpan. Minke fed her sips of water and soup, but solid food was out of the question. At the same time, the house became more active, as though it had already transcended her death. Meneer DeVries’s trunks were packed and waiting in the hall downstairs. Griet could be heard traipsing up and down the stairs, calling out orders. She sometimes came into the room and stood beside her sleeping mother, staring down, saying nothing. Pim occasionally sat with his mother, racked with sobs. Early one morning, Meneer DeVries came to Elisabeth’s room and woke Minke. “I’m taking you home today,” he said. “No need to pack your things. I’ll have them sent along.” He was all business. All haste.
“But Elisabeth!” Minke said. She had a vision of Elisabeth abandoned in her room, dying alone.
“Griet can manage.”
It was the fight. He must have found out about the fight. Griet would have said Minke attacked her. Maybe Griet had accused Minke of stealing morphine. Minke waited for him to leave the room before she dressed, throwing her hair sloppily up with pins, weeping at the suddenness of her dismissal and feeling guilt over something she hadn’t done.
Elisabeth lay against the pillows, her neck stretched as if drawn to the light in the room. Minke took her carefully in her arms. “I’ll be thinking of you day and night.” Elisabeth made no sign of acknowledgment. Minke laid her back. “I’ll know when your time comes.”
MENEER DEVRIES WAS calling to her from the door. She practically flew down the half-flight of stairs leading to the first-level parlor and jumped in surprise when she saw a stranger sitting on the sofa there. He was a dark, tidy-looking man, clad in a black velvet jacket, his hands resting atop a walking stick. Meneer DeVries called again; she had time to say only a quick hello to the stranger before taking the next flight of stairs to the door, where Meneer DeVries paced anxiously. He helped Minke into the Spijker, hastened back into the house, and shut the door behind him. She waited, shivering with cold, watching people pass by the car and admire it. He was gone a long time, so long she wondered if he’d forgotten about her. Should she go back inside to call for him? Finally, the door opened and he came outside wiping his face with his handkerchief, turning back, turning again. In and out, back and forth. And then he was in the car without a word of explanation and they were on their way.
As suddenly as Minke had come to Amsterdam, she was leaving. Meneer DeVries was agitated behind the wheel. He spoke not a word, but when they were well out of Amsterdam, she finally got up the nerve to ask him, because she had to know. “Have I done something wrong?”
He seemed shaken. “My sweet girl. Of course not.”
“Griet says you’re going to South America.”
“In three days’ time,” he said, making her wonder about her belongings. Would she truly get them back, or would Griet throw them out? And what of Elisabeth? It felt cruel to leave her to the care of that girl. Oh, who was she fooling? She was the outsider. She was the help. Elisabeth had made her feel important, but the truth was, she could be brought in and discharged by any one of them.
At her house in Enkhuizen, Meneer DeVries pulled his car to a stop. Mama came to the door and threw her arms around Minke. Papa had tears in his eyes.
“A word,” Meneer DeVries said to them brusquely. “Alone.”
Minke had no place to go but up to the attic like a scolded child. Her only solace was that Fenna wasn’t there or she’d have had to face her sister’s triumph over her obvious failure in Amsterdam. Meneer DeVries would be telling her parents about the fight with his daughter. She would tell her parents the truth, and they would believe her, not anyone else.
“Minke!” Her mother’s voice came from downstairs, the familiar nervous laughter floating along behind it.
Meneer DeVries sat where she’d seen him the first day. He was beaming with pleasure. Her father was standing before the stove, his hands tapping up and down his thin chest as if he didn’t know where to put them. He cleared his throat. “Minke,” he blurted out before she had the chance to sit, “Meneer DeVries has asked for your hand in marriage.”
* Meneer is the equivalent of the English Mr., Mevrouw is the equivalent of Mrs.