STILL LIFE WITH ECHO 2005 by Jon L. Adams (J. Leslie Adams) All rights reserved. First published February 2008 at www.issuu.com (Apologies to Jan Vermeer, Jan Steen and Caravaggio)
he painter of windmills folded his burly arms across his crimson spattered smock and gazed at his finished canvas. The landscape depicted two wooden windmills along a canal bordered by blossoming fruit trees and a dirt track where two oxen pulled an empty cart toward a distant town. Beyond the mills, the burg’s lone church towered above a hazy line of trees and red tile roofs. The oil paint glistened in the studio’s north light that burst through a row of open windows. A corner of the painting caught his shadow as he stepped forward with a thin brush to scrawl his signature at the lower right, over the canal that reflected the cobalt sky. He admired his creation. It could be his finest work. Although it had required less than five days, the painting was a masterwork. He untied the sash around his baldhead and threw it on his tabouret, along with the rabbit-hair brush, and then he removed his smock and hung it on the easel. He caught his reflection in the glass, ribbed by the shutters inches beyond the windows. He considered his visage. Nearly fifty years old, he weighed what a man a brush-length taller should carry. His portly effigy stared back at him and frowned. His paunch had long ago overhung his hips. His arms and legs resembled banister wood, and he slowly shook his head at the specter.
The painter sniffed the foul air that filled the room and went to the sill. His ears filled with the bleating of sheep and goats, and he looked down at the narrow thoroughfare. The wooly backs were being forced to the slaughterhouse next door. He knew the night would be charged with their death cries and the odor would require the windows be shut, even in the midst of the hot and humid July that had descended upon Delft. He scanned the lane. Kate would soon return and he searched for the familiar blue scarf that sheltered his wife’s curly ash-colored hair from the constant dirt of the city’s dripping roofs. He thought that he saw her near the second corner, rushing his way. She would have been to his house, where the painting he had just finished would soon rest, framed on his patron’s sitting room wall. Vandeberk would own his masterpiece soon enough, just as the merchant enjoyed the loins of his very own wife for some years! He would have kept the painting in his own house, or he would have sold it for far more than the two hundred guilders, had he known how beautiful it turned out to be. There was no choice now. His patron had paid half in advance. Perhaps he would ask for more. It was Kate. She scurried along behind the sheep, skipping back and forth across
the stones in her attempt to avoid their droppings. He watched her snatch off the scarf as she opened the door below his face and disappeared into the house.
hey ate near that same door in the kitchen, the painter, his wife Kate and their three daughters. They had no servants, and the children were old enough now to help with the meals. He complimented the youngest on her bread, the middle child for her preparation of the vegetables and the oldest, now fifteen, for the taste of her stew. Kate had long ago quit making the kitchen her choice of labor. Hers, he knew, governed other tastes, and she currently served up her fare in his patron’s bed. “I believe it is my best work,” he said again. “Your best work! Ha! All you do is paint the same windmills, over and over. You believe you’ll be famous for painting windmills that look more like teapots?” He sipped at the stew juice, holding the bowl in his hands. “Well? Answer me!” “How can I answer such rot?” He was indignant but chose to avert his eyes toward a child and winked. “You’ll never be remembered like Van Rijn or Hals. They’ll never look at your paintings and recall who the fuck you are! You’re no Vermeer or Jan Steen, you know.” “They’ve been dead a hundred years.” “You’ll never make a name for yourself!
You don’t make enough money to get us in a decent house! We have to live in this garbage pit next to a fucking slaughterhouse and smell that shit! I should never have married such a pig!” She was worse than usual. He glanced at the girls, one-by-one. “Did you hear your loving mother? She wishes you had never been born, and she punctuates her curse on you with her slut’s mouth,” His tone of voice was soft and even. The children stared at him with wide eyes, and then they turned to Kate. She tried to answer their concerns. “He’s trying to change the subject!” He said nothing and finished his bread with the scrap of cheese that was left on his side plate. The intermittent cries of sheep and lambs passed though the thin front wall. The girls squinted and began to tidy up the table.
he painter had closed the windows so the light would suffuse the studio and dramatically present the painting. Vandeberk shoved his fists into his waist, leaned his torso back, and rested his bearded chin on his broad white collar. The painting remained on the easel in the studio. The patron had come to view it, now that it was finished. All that remained was for it to dry and to be framed before the patron’s final payment would claim it for his wall. “It is incredibly well executed,” the visitor said. He straightened and brought a hand to his chin, fingering his white beard
and puzzling over the painting. “My best work,” the painter said. “You can have it in another week. I will frame it when it is dry.” “Agreed. Bring it to my office then. I will give you your hundred Guilders.” “I would like fifty more for it. I don’t believe I will ever make another painting quite as fine.” The patron snapped his head at him. “We have an agreement. You must learn to keep your word.” “I realize, but this one is exceptional,” the painter said. “Then I made a good purchase, didn’t I?” Vandeberk showed his cynical sneer, spun around and left the artist standing alone next to his easel.
e carried the framed work along the wide street near the canal dock. The witch kept her shop along there and he searched both sides of the busy avenue for it. She was rumored to have come from Surinam on the coast of South America, and it was said she had powers beyond imagination. She could make a doll in the image of anyone and shove sharp needles and pins into it and that person would suffer pain and misfortune! He had heard that she cast a spell on a city alderman who had caused her trouble and the man had leaped into a shit-covered canal and nearly drowned in his own feces!
He found the tiny shop in an alcove, near the stores owned by his patron who would that very day take ownership of his masterpiece. He opened the flimsy door and squeezed in, carefully orienting the canvascovered frame and painting so it would not scrape against the wood of the filthy entrance. She sat in a wicker rocker in the rear of the confinement, surrounded by shelves of amulets, waxes and bottles filled with strange exotic powders, pieces of wood, granules and liquids. The shop’s air was cool, heavy with the stench of incense. She wore a flared cotton dress of many colors that he assumed was her native costume. It was stained with pinks and reds, with squirrelly lines in bright blue that resembled snakes or worms. He introduced himself and removed the painting’s cover. Her face gave no sign of appreciation, but the sincerity in her voice did. “It is a very fine work. What is your pleasure?” “I must give this painting to my patron today in return for the remuneration that we agreed. I wanted more, but he refused. The man is also screwing my wife! You would think that he would pay me what I deserve, as he takes his pleasure with my own bride!” “What can I do?” “Can you place a curse or something
on the painting, so that he will at the least pay something more for it in misery?” “Who is the man who cuckolds you?” “Vandeberk, the merchant who has his store on the square near here.” The black woman’s eyes widened and a long smile curled on her wrinkled face. “He has an evil soul! He spat on me once as I passed him in the street. I will take pleasure in granting your wish.” “Tell me, how will you do your magic and what curse will you place on him?” “My people were from Africa. They were taken as slaves to the new world and the magic spells traveled with them. The spells are ancient and secret to me alone. I cannot reveal them. I can only tell you this - you must leave the painting with me until the morning. I will place a spell on it, and it will work against that terrible man.” “But I must take it to Vandeberk today!” “Go to him. Say the varnish has not dried because the air is damp. He will be angry but believe you. He will also say that your payment shall be less, but do not fear. He will pay you the full amount.” The painter doubted her prophecy, especially what she about his payment. It had happened before that Vandeberk docked him a few guilder when he was late with a painting.
“What will you do to him?” “I cannot say, but you must be careful to not gaze upon your painting again. When you come tomorrow, I will have it covered. Take it to the man and never cast your eyes on it again.” He nodded agreement. They came to her price and he gave her the coppers. After he left, the painter hurried to inform Vandeberk that the painting would not be delivered until the next morning. “In that case,” the patron shouted, “I will reduce your remainder by five guilders! We had an agreement!” “Good sir! I do not wish to damage my work by affixing a frame to wet varnish. You must understand!” Vandeberk frowned and sighed. “Just this one time. I will not tolerate you breaking your word again.” He hurried home to supper. Kate returned late. The children had begun to eat and he sat with his empty platter, awaiting her presence as he always had done. When she flew in the door he saw the flush on her face. “Where have you been?” He asked. “At the cotton market,” she claimed and took her seat at the table.
“Did you get the money from our patron?” Our patron? He laughed out loud. “What are you laughing at?” “Nothing. You should know if I have the money, should you not?” She glared at him and he focused his eyes on hers until she flushed pink and began to stir her tea.
he owner of the painting will become so attached to it that he will not be able to leave its presence. He will spend hours and days romancing it in his eyes and mind. His entire being will be consumed by its beauty.” “That’s a curse?” The voodoo priestess sat once more in the stick chair and he thought that as she spoke her face hardly moved at all. The painting in its canvas cover sat along the shelves between them. “It is a terrible spell. You cannot imagine how terrible. The man is an inhospitable cur! He deserves to suffer the consequences of his unpardonable sins.” “It doesn’t sound like a curse,” he said, “more like a blessing!” “You will see. I am also giving you back your money, because one day your painting will honor my family.” The painter thanked the witch and carried the work to Vandeberk’s offices, just down the street and across the small square. The weather was even worse and the air hung thick with foul smells and coal smoke.
He entered the building and asked the clerk for his patron. In a few minutes Vandeberk arrived and snatched it from his hands. “First, sir, you must pay me!” Vandeberk eyes were fixed on the canvas and he did not answer, but he reached into his coat and removed a simple envelope. The painter took it and turned to leave. “It’s all in there,” the patron said. “I expect you to bring me my purchases on time from now on, do you understand?” The painter cocked his head around and smiled once. He left the man staring at his painting as if it was a voluptuous woman about to stretch across his bed.
velyn stood in the vast drawing room where her husband, Sir Richard, had ordered the staff to hang their latest acquisition. Her good friend, Mrs. Teller, stood with her, their heads to one side and then the other, viewing the rather small painting in its newfound glory, halfway from the wainscot to the ceiling of the room in the English manor. It was a colorful work, two windmills along a Dutch canal, and it occupied a meager two and a half feet by two, including the three-inch wide frame that was burnished with gold leaf. “Richard has impeccable taste, Evelyn. It is a marvelous work of Dutch landscape painting. Who exactly was the artist?” “A relatively unknown painter of Delft, named Piet Ten Hut. It was painted around seventeen hundred fifteen. I’ve never heard of him before, but Richard is absolutely convinced that this is an important piece. He bid way over the previous amount to guarantee the purchase.” They stood in appreciation for a few minutes and went out for their waiting tea. Sir Richard was already at the table that was situated in a windowed round overlook that brought the large garden right into the grand house. “Your painting is incredibly beautiful, Richard,” the visitor said. “Yes. It is.” “I so love the Dutch landscapes,” she added and reached for a biscuit. “It’s actually a still-life, you know,” he remarked to the ladies’ surprise. “Consider this table. Notice the two tall pitchers, one of tea and the other of milk. See how they resemble those twin windmills in the artwork. Then look at the serviettes and the saltcellar, the sugar bowl, the vase of tiny flowers, and the remainder of the table settings. The painting is like that. When you sit in the divan and look at it the painting becomes a still life of natural and fabricated landscape. Actually, that is why I fell in love with it.” They examined the table setting and agreed that it was genuinely so. The painting had a character that was evident once you compared it to a high tea.
Two weeks later Mrs. Teller called on the manor to bring news of her brother’s appointment to the Foreign Service’s embassy in Italy. Evelyn greeted her at the door and waved the butler away from them as she led her guest to the back and the garden. She did not speak until they reached the rear verandah, where she offered her neighbor an iron chair and sat down on another. “He’s very ill, I’m afraid. I’ve sent for a physician.” “Who, Evelyn? Who is ill?” “Richard. He sits all day and half the night in there, staring up at that painting. It’s very odd. He doesn’t come to dinner and I have the staff bring it to him in the drawing room. Even then he barely eats enough to sustain him. He has not been to my bed for days, and I’ve told you what a lecher he is.” “My! How odd.” Mrs. Teller blushed and looked away. “First thing in the morning, he’s sitting in front of the painting we bought, without bathing or changing into decent clothes! I can’t convince him to leave it. He refuses to go out of the house. He hasn’t been to Sunday services since that painting came into the manor.” They talked in the back until Mrs. Teller had to leave for her midday meal. Evelyn stood near the front door and watched her husband’s entrancement through the
door to the room that held the painting.
he doctor joined her in the library where he discussed his diagnosis. She could see that he was not certain about what he had discovered. “Sir Richard is suffering from a mental malady, my Lady. I am keen to have him at the clinic at St. John’s. They have specialists who can examine him more completely. One of them studied under the famous Viennese Doctor Freud.” “He won’t leave the room, let alone the house!” Evelyn emphasized her dilemma. “He must, my Lady. We must exercise every means to remove Sir Richard to the place where he may receive the proper treatment. These maladies are fairly uncommon, I’m afraid, and I have no medical knowledge of them.” She understood and said that she would discuss it with her staff. Somehow, she would get her husband to the clinic before the man starved himself to death. They practically had to drag Sir Richard from the room, and when the salon car had him firmly in its rear compartment, she urged the driver on to the clinic. The trip was a dreadful series of rutted country lanes and carriage-choked village high streets,
and it took over three hours. All the way, the painting’s proud but unknowing owner attempted to remove himself from the grasp of his wife and the confinement of the car. Their private physician explained to Evelyn, “Although they’re continuing to observe Sir Richard’s strange behavior, the doctors have admitted to me that they have never seen such an odd case. His obsession with the painting has completely inhabited his being. I believe it may stem from a disorder he acquired during his service in South Africa, so I sent an inquiry to the Ministry of War, asking for information about those Boer War cases. We may discover similarities.” Evelyn listened and silently prayed.
n three weeks, when there had been little improvement in her husband’s affliction, she consulted the chief medical practitioner at the St. John’s Clinic. “There are no previous cases like Sir Richard’s. While there have been people with obsessions here for treatment, none of them has been this comprehensive before. No records from the War Office correlate with his malady. Frankly Madame, I would suggest that you dispose of this artwork that seems to be the center of your husband’s mental focus.” “Oh, doctor, Richard would never approve!” “My dear Lady, you must get it out of his sight!”
“Sir, that painting is his prize! He would never forgive me if I sold it.” “Then, you must arrange for it to be removed. Perhaps you might have it stolen. I cannot emphasize how important it will be to his recovery.” In less than a week, Sir Richard presented the doctors with rapid, almost complete recovery. They were amazed at his change, and Evelyn hurried to have the broken garden windows repaired before his return to the manor. She stopped in the drawing room to admire the hunting print that had replaced the painting, by then somewhere in the provenance of the thief’s fence.
riel strolled casually down Lexington Avenue, near Bloomingdale’s. She carried two plastic shopping bags from the store, and before she caught the subway home had decided to look at the window displays in the area galleries. What caught her eye was not the landscape, but the reflection she saw in the window between her and the painting. She looked like one of her ancestors, an old African woman wearing a multicolored cotton dress with swirls of color that reminded her of snakes. The face was hers, but it had aged. The reflection made her look ninety years old! Stunned, she focused beyond the mirror image and saw the painting. For a second it resembled a still life and Ariel thought she saw two vessels on a table surrounded by other bowls and containers. It brought the sudden flush of déjà vu. Had she seen that work of art before? In another life? What compelled her to reach for the handle and open the door were the strange sense of “it happened to me
a long time ago” and her curious perception of the reflection. “May I help you?” A tall man greeted her with his hands clasped near his chin, and he lifted his eyebrows in expectation. She saw a motley collection of antique sideboards and other furniture, interspersed with shelves of old books and glassware. Her surprise at what occurred outside caused Ariel to stutter. “I-I- would like to know something about that painting.” She pointed her thin chocolate fingers toward the front window. “Certainly. Let me get it for you.” He leaned over the other merchandise to retrieve the painting and brought it to a table in the center of the shop. “It was accomplished in about seventeenfifteen by a minor Dutch painter named Ten Hut. He painted only windmills, although the period was more defined by interior painting than landscape works.
Relatively unknown until the early twentieth century, there are several of his works in private collections.” “That’s interesting,” she said. “My grandmother several times removed was a Dutch immigrant from South America. She lived in the same period.” “What a coincidence! Did she happen to live in Delft?” “I don’t know. Her granddaughter came to the colonies from Holland, that’s all I know.” “The painting has an unusual provenance. Would you enjoy hearing about it?” She nodded and he described the artwork’s history. “A witch supposedly placed a curse on the painting for the artist who wanted revenge against his patron. The purchaser had seduced the painter’s wife. The curse was supposed to capture the owner in the painting’s spell, so that he could not leave it. The first owner starved to death in the room where the painting was hung.’ “Several subsequent owners nearly came to the same end, except they managed to escape the curse by one means or another. Finally, one of them had the frame replaced and discovered an inscription hidden from view on the bare wood. It read, ‘My magic can only be removed by burning the frame. The painting holds no spell.’”
Ariel shivered. “It was a voodoo curse.” “The witch was a priestess who originally went to Holland from Surinam. She…” “How much?” Ariel’s eyes filled with excitement. “It’s priced at four thousand five hundred.” “Will you take a check?” He was delighted to take her paper and rushed to complete the transaction. She carried it home on the train, tucked against her as if Ariel thought the artwork needed her protection to survive the journey beneath the city. When she reached her Queens apartment, she tore off the wrapping and hung the painting in her living room. She telephoned her mother. “Mom. It’s Ariel. You won’t believe what happened to me today, but you have to fly up here right away. I’ve got something to show you and a story even more exciting to tell you.” Her mother asked for an explanation. Ariel began. “Remember the family tales about old Anka, our great-great-great whatever grandmother from Holland and how she cast spells, and that she could only cast those spells on wooden objects…?”
– I don’t believe in spells or magic, unless that’s what you call the feeling I get while writing a story.
Cover title: Zapfino Text: Bookman Old Style Initials: Acquitaine Initials ICG
J. (Jon) Leslie Adams is the author of several hundred short stories, some of which have been published in journals, quarterlies and other small publications. He has published two novels, FALSE WITNESSES and TEACHING COLLETTE, available on www. amazon.com and www.lulu.com.
Published on ISSUU February 14, 2008 www.issuu.com ©2005 & 2008 Jon L. Adams
Published on Feb 18, 2008