"You're right, Griet. I'm sorry. And your face, now that I can see more of it, it is—"
I catch myself. Her eyes search my face, questioning. Craving proof of words unspoken, desiring to make the current between us into something tangible.
Beautiful, I want to shout. Angelic. Perfect.
Oh, Lord, what draws me to this woman, this girl? Years before, I remember standing in her mother's kitchen, watching her spindle-like hands chop the vegetables. The carrot, onion, turnip, leeks, cabbage. Arranged by color, arranged by an artist. I remember her looking up from her work, and her wide, ocean-like eyes meeting mine, a flash of uncertainty and desire crossing them. A jolt had passed through my chest and I knew then that things were about to change.
Oh, Griet. My sweet, young Griet. Why must you be so enthralling? Your innocence worn as a shroud, hiding behind your starched white cap, begging for someone to unlock the secrets of your soul. Those inquisitive questions. Your quiet intelligence and wit. Those wide eyes, those full lips, begging to be met by a man who knows of the world.
What passes through your mind? Is the touch of my hand over yours as we grinded the ivory ingrained on your palm and yours is mine? What secrets lie behind the mist of your eyes?
It's not uncommon for the master of a household to take advantage of his maids. Expected even, by members of my standing. But no Griet, I watch you. Your lithe frame and quiet countenance. And although I desire you. I hunger for you more than food or drink, more so than even art and God himself, I could never take you. Never take you in a way that would be cheating you from the purity and commitment you deserve.
And then there's Catharina. My wife. Wife. The word stands bitter on my tongue as I watch my wide-eyed muse. But then it's my wife—the epitome of security, sanctity. Who has stood by my side, borne my children. I could never deceive her. But she doesn't understand. Doesn't understand my vision, my world. Not like my Griet. She sees the colors. I'd be lying if I say I don't turn to my wife with Griet on my mind. I imagine her tiny hands as my wife caresses my face, and her full mouth as my wife kisses me. I am a sinner. But I cannot resist temptation.
Temptation. Tempting. Tempt. How can one woman of such innocence and calm inflict such desire in me? In men in general? The faces of van Ruijven and that longhaired butcher boy swarm unwelcome into my thoughts. I am not the only one entrapped by Griet's allure, and that thought makes me seethe with jealously. Yet I am a fool, for she is not mine, I should not be bothered by her other affections. But still…
That butcher boy. She's going to marry him. I know that fact deep in my chest. That bright-eyed dreamer, with blood caked hands. Why should he deserve Griet? But why should I? I detest him in a way that only the devil's jealously can produce.
But then there's van Ruijven. My steady source of income, my patron, a true bastard. It took many drinks, and much lying to keep Griet out of van Ruijven's painting. It could not be more worth it. I remember the woman in the red dress. I painted them; the models staying perfectly still, except for the constant flow of wine van Ruijven poured into the young woman's cup. I remember him leaning into her, her face joyous to be wearing the silk and drinking the wine, but occasionally a troubled, frightful look would reveal itself in her eyes as his mouth came too close to hers, his hand sneakily edging towards her breasts. He fed her more wine, and being his servant, she obliged to drink it.
And then I left them alone. I regret that more than I dare admit. I had run out of white paint and went to the attic to grind colors, leaving them to sit in the studio. I made my way down the ladder, and peeked out of the storeroom to see if they were ready. I caught them. His body crushing and cold on top of hers, her skirt pulled up. Her eyes were crying for help, but she was too inebriated to protest, to move. And Lord have mercy on me, I shied away. Turned around, stayed in the room unseen until he was finished. I was disgusted, embarrassed, afraid of upsetting my patron, of losing him. Neither knew that they were seen, and I never told a soul. It would have stayed a secret if she were not found carrying his babe several months later. Soon she was turned out on the street, pregnant and alone. I don't know what happened to her or her child, but it haunts me. I am at fault, as much as van Ruijven. I am a coward. I am a sinner.
I look at Griet as she watches me, perfectly still, waiting for instruction. She has exchanged the peculiar brown cloth for a becoming rich blue and yellow covering—turning her into some Turkish princess. A vision of van Ruijven overcoming Griet crosses my mind, ripping off her headscarf, shaming her, destroying her—a thought like a knife ripping through a newly finished painting, and I want to strangle the man. She must have seen the look of fury cross my face. "Sir?" she asks quietly, "Are you well?" I snap back into reality. "Yes, Griet, thank you," I respond quickly.
Griet gazes at me over her left shoulder. I meet her large eyes, and she trembles slightly. Her eyes are a war—longing vs. hurt, desire vs. innocence. Perfect. The setting is perfect, this is it.
I stare at the model, and she stares back, resolute, still. I glance down at my palette, and when I look up, I spy a single tear running down her cheek. She wipes it away quickly, hoping that I didn't see. Our eyes meet, and now it is only confusion, confusion and pain. She bursts into tears.
I set my palette down, and kneel before her chair. "Griet," I murmur, holding her hand tightly in mine. So strong, yet so soft. She cannot stop the deluge, and she reddens beautifully at the prospect. "I'm sorry sir, I…"
"Shh, Griet, it's okay." Sobs rack her tired body. She hunches, leans against me.
I'm holding her. This thought hovers strongly in the back of my mind. How many times have I imagined this moment? But not like this, not with her hurt.
"Griet, whatever is the matter?"
With trembling hands she shows me the blue bruises on her neck. She rolls up her sleeves to reveal the bruises on her forearms, then on her shoulders, her hands trace over her thighs, signifying the angry marks that most certainly lie beneath the fabric. "van Ruijven, sir," she whispers. She won't meet my eye. "He seeks me out, he's…" she trails off.
Keeping Griet out of the group painting did not keep her safe. I want to kill the man. But no, it is my fault. I am the one who has not looked after her, protected her. I've underestimated the bastard—he is not known to be a patient man.
I wipe away a tear from her cheek. "Griet, has he…?" "No," she blushes, "but close." I can't let this happen again. I've inadvertently ruined van Ruijven's former maid, and I will not be responsible again. I want to throw the easel, to shatter the glass in the windows, to burn the canvas, but her arms are draped around my shoulders rooting me in place—I am hers.
"Help me," she whispers, eyes imploring.
"I will, I promise."
She inches closer to me, her face centimeters away from mine, her breath a sweet inferno on my face. Our lips meet, a shared connection, instigated by neither party. It's brief, aching with pain and suppressed passion. In that kiss holds two years of repressed desire, two years of inspiration and beauty. She lays her head on my shoulder, and I hold her close until the tears subside.
I don my coat and make my way to van Ruijven's house, the fullness of Griet's lips propelling me onward, perpetually haunting me.