The old master studies the canvas for a long moment, then reaches out with shaking hands. He cuts away an excess of cobalt, his knife leaving a sharp shadow at the base of the tall cloud painted against the ultramarine sky. His student, used to such corrections, only nods his understanding, immediately applying his brush elsewhere.
The master’s own canvas is only half-finished, rough layers of oil over a charcoal sketch that he almost hadn’t needed to make. He’s painted this landscape before. He remembers silvered clouds in a butter-yellow sky. The windmill that dominates the scene was new, its sails full as it caught the wind. Today the structure is tired, its doorways seeming to list and sag, its sailcloth panels torn, exposing the latticework beneath. Even the tulips in the foreground, a river of red and white that undulates in the breeze off the canal, even they are not the tulips of thirty years ago. Those were so exquisite they could shatter a soul. More than one man had been broken by that blossom; today’s flowers seem barely to hold even the shadow memory of such beauty.
The serving woman wraps a cloak around his shoulders. The old master pulls it tight, hands too gnarled to be only sixty-two, he thinks. They can still hold a brush, still earn a living, and for that he’s grateful, but he remembers the hands of his youth, smooth and fine-boned, dexterous enough to paint all day without tiring. This April is mild, but his joints are sensitive to the smallest chill, and today they ache as though they were eighty.
The flapping of a tablecloth in his periphery catches his notice; the woman has set out the dinner of cold chicken and vegetables. His students, only two now – he stopped taking boys three years before – pause their work, eager for food and conversation after so many hours silently painting. The master stays by his easel, but takes a plate when offered. He eats the bread, only picking at the drumstick and asparagus. Food is not the joy it once was. But nothing is, really.
Once again he remembers that yellow sky and the girl who brought his meal then. Saskia. Only twenty-two, the cousin of a patron and so beautiful. “You are losing the light, sir,” she’d said to him that day, setting her basket on the ground. She’d knelt then, paying no heed to the damp grass on her pale green chintz. She studied his drawing. “Melancholic,” she said simply, gazing at his work. “Are you sad?”
Her voice was low, that scratch of laughter always there, even when speaking of melancholy. He admired the spill of red-gold hair from beneath her linen cap, her plump cheeks aglow from the cold spring air. “I cannot be sad, in such company,” he told her. It sounded cavalier, and he hoped she did not suspect him false.
“I’ve come with your supper,” she told him, “but I would stay to watch you work, if you allow it.” She tugged her fur-lined cloak close around her chin and settled onto the grass, fully expecting to stay.
He had known her but a fortnight, but it had been like this from the first, each seeking reasons to find the other, to linger thereafter. Over those weeks, they’d simultaneously exchanged insignificant conversation and meaningful glances, until he was certain that there was understanding between them, though no words to any such effect had been uttered. “I will not deny you,” he told her that day beside the windmill, “though you may wish I had. Sketching can be dull work.”
She smiled then, a radiant, impish grin, exposing a dimple and a flash of teeth. For long minutes they sat, he drawing, she watching, the supper forgotten. From the canals, the barge-men called, the mules brayed, and above them all, the sails of the windmill creaked.
“Are you not known for your portraits, sir?” she asked at long last, just as he lay a deep shadow beneath the bank of the canal. “Surely there is no living to be made in etchings of landscapes, lovely though they are?”
He looked at her fondly, so young and yet already so practical. “There is time enough to make money. This, I make for love.”
And here, here she looked up, her eyes wide and dark, her hair tossed by the wind. His heart staggered, for she had never looked more beautiful. “Are there not portraits,” she asked softly, “which are also made for love?”
For the first time, he was bold enough to take her hand. She did not flinch at the dark smudges of charcoal and chalk; she only looked into his eyes, waiting. “I would paint your face,” he told her.
Now, years later, the old master pulls paper from his bundle, his hands shaking as fingers search for chalk. He closes his eyes, remembering her face, just as it was in that moment. His pupils’ chatter fades, the feel of the sun on his face diminishes, and once more it’s a yellow, overcast day.
He draws the curve of her cheek, a bold crescent of red chalk that meets the sweeping line of her jaw. His fingers no longer tremble; the spring damp no longer seems to gnaw. More than twenty-five years have passed since he’d last drawn the planes and shadows of her face, but still his hands know them. In bold strokes and fine lines, she comes to life for him, her mouth laughing, her face framed in a fur-lined hood.
“Saskia.” His voice rumbles, low and ancient. There have been other women, each dear in her way, but now, as time weighs heavier upon him than mere years, it’s her voice he remembers, her face he would paint for love.
Angela Teagardner is a bookseller for pay but a writer for passion. She lives with her little family in a little house in Columbus, Ohio.