On the step of her new husband’s house, Nella Oortman lifts and drops the dolphin knocker, embarrassed by the thud. No one comes, though she is expected. The time was prearranged and letters written, her mother’s paper so thin compared with Brandt’s expensive vellum. No, she thinks, this is not the best of greetings, given the blink of a marriage ceremony the month before—no garlands, no betrothal cup, no wedding bed. Nella places her small trunk and birdcage on the step. She knows she’ll have to embellish this later for home, when she’s found a way upstairs, a room, a desk.

Nella turns to the canal as bargemen’s laughter rises up the opposite brickwork. A puny lad has skittled into a woman and her basket of fish, and a half-dead herring slithers down the wide front of the seller’s skirt. The harsh cry of her country voice runs under Nella’s skin. “Idiot! Idiot!” the woman yells. The boy is blind, and he grabs in the dirt for the escaped herring as if it’s a silver charm, his fingers quick, not afraid to feel around. He scoops it, cackling, running up the path with his catch, his free arm out and ready.

Nella cheers silently and stays to face this rare October warmth, to take it while she can. This part of the Herengracht is known as the Golden Bend, but today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-colored canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Above their rooftops Nature is doing her best to keep up, and the clouds in colors of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.

Nella turns back to the door, now slightly ajar. Was it like this before? She cannot be sure. She pushes on it, peering into the void as cool air rises from the marble. “Johannes Brandt?” she calls—loud, a little panicked. Is this a game? she thinks. I’ll be standing here come January. Peebo, her parakeet, thrills the tips of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling on the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.

Nella is sure of one thing as she looks deeper into the shadows. She’s being watched. Come on, Nella Elisabeth, she tells herself, stepping over the threshold. Will her new husband embrace her, kiss her or shake her hand like it’s just business? He didn’t do any of those things at the ceremony, surrounded by her small family and not a single member of his.

The Miniaturist