Short Story: “Portrait of an Amsterdam Lady”

I wrote this story about a year ago, based off an Internet prompt that I don’t remember now. I submitted it for publication to a few places, but nothing happened, so I sat on it for a while and forgot about it. Until a few days ago when I stumbled across it again. It’s hardly my most ambitious work, but maybe you guys will like it anyway. I can’t help but notice that “weird semi-immortal women doing things” is now a recurring theme in my short stories. Ah, well!

I met my neighbor in an art gallery. Not as a visitor, as one of the paintings.

I was in a fancy museum upstate, at an exhibit of old Dutch masters. The placard next to her picture didn’t tell me her name. It just said Stefan GrimmerinkPortrait of an Amsterdam Lady1619oil on canvas

Her face looked like it was emerging from the shadows, a pale oval spot amidst a sea of darkness. She stood against a black curtain, and her massive, gold-embroidered dress was dyed a deep shade of brown. The earthy colors closed in around her, trying to swallow her up. It was a monotony only broken by the stark whiteness of the ruff around her neck and the bonnet on her head, both framing her face.

At first glance, she wasn’t that pretty. Her broad white forehead dominated her face, stopped only by the hint of a dark, receded hairline peeking out from beneath her bonnet. The rosiness of her cheeks seemed artificial, painted on to cover up the thin sallowness of the rest of her face. She had a cleft chin and a round, stubby nose, and her upper lip was too small. Everyone else in the gallery just gave her a quick glance and then went on their way.

But something about that face kept my attention. I think it was the way she seemed to be aware of the world beyond her picture frame, aware of the stifling stiffness inside it. You could tell by the way she looked out at you. There were glimmers of curiosity and impatience in her dark eyes, like she had someplace better to be than posing for a portrait. It was the same energy in her left hand as it fingered the gold chain around her waist. She was waiting, biding her time–she hated having to keep still. 

I didn’t think of her again until a year later, when she moved in next door. At first I didn’t realize it was her, because why would I? But also because she had changed herself so completely. She looked fatter now, but also healthier and happier. No more ruff or bonnet or embroidered dress, either. Now she wore a bright yellow blouse covered in tiny purple flowers, a faded and paint-stained pair of overalls and a worn pair of lace-up boots. Her brown hair was pulled up into a messy bun, held in place by a rubber band and a pencil. Her sleeves were rolled up, revealing strong, sunburned arms: she picked up a stack of boxes and carried them up the walkway like they were nothing. Her face was sunburned too, bright and flushed and laughing. A fuzzy white dog trotted around nipping at her heels. 

I knew I had seen her somewhere before, but it didn’t click in my mind until she glanced over at me standing on the other lawn and stopped to wave. And there were the same dark eyes, and those same glimmers of impatience and curiosity.

She must have seen the look on my face, because a look of surprise–not fear, just surprise–flashed across her face. Her smile faded, but only for a split second. She arched an eyebrow as she turned away, walking at a slower pace than before. After that, she kept peering over to see if I was still watching. 

When I visited her a few days later, bringing a plateful of burnt sugar cookies, she opened the front door like she knew I would be standing there. “Come in, come in,” she said, grinning like she spoke to an old friend. “I’m Liz. The tea’s almost ready. Or I have wine, if you’d prefer.” 

She was an artist too, it seemed. But she didn’t paint people, or even anything that looked real. The canvases that covered her walls were coated in drips and splashes of bold color that blended together in tangled webs. It was the same with her sculptures, lumps of clay transformed into looping, incomprehensible shapes. The only normal-looking pieces I saw were her knitted rugs and a careful watercolor portrait of her dog. 

That was the first time we sat at her kitchen table and chatted over tea and cookies. Liz kept trying to ask me where I was from, what my life was like. But I knew nothing I’d ever say could be half as interesting as a single word about herself. For days I got her to talk about her own life. She’d never been to art school, she said. Self-taught. She listed all the galleries she had exhibited in, all the cities where she had lived. Paris and Tokyo and Mumbai and so many more. Eventually we talked about all the languages she could speak and all the husbands she had outlived. It didn’t seem to bother her that I knew she didn’t look old enough to have outlived even one husband, let alone eleven. One day, as I was getting ready to leave, I saw her picture in the corner of my eye–it was a magnet stuck on the side of her fridge. I wondered if she placed it there to signal to me that she knew. 

The next time we met, I pulled out my phone and showed the portrait to her. “I found this online the other day,” I lied. “Weird how it looks like you, isn’t it?” That was how I tried to pass it off, as an oddity shared between friends and not an accusation.

But she just smiled knowingly at the picture on my screen, then looked up with that familiar glint in her eyes. “Oh, it doesn’t look like me,” she said. “It is me.” 

She had been Lijsbeth van Keppel back then. No one important, just the unmarried daughter of a merchant. But Stefan Grimmerink painted her portrait when she was thirty, and she had not aged a day since then. 

“I did not realize it until a decade or so had passed,” she said. “Not until I watched my father grow older and grayer while I stayed the same, or when I stood at my sister’s funeral in 1640 without a wrinkle on my face. I had to leave the city after that, of course. Word started to spread that I was a witch.” 

“Did you ever think that maybe you were?” 

Liz shook her head. “I knew whatever had befallen me, it had not been my own doing. I went to church and said my prayers. For a time I thought it was some sort of curse, to be frozen in place while the world around spins along as it always has. The people you love fall apart and go to their graves, and only you remain.” She sipped her tea. “But then fifty or so years pass, and you begin to settle in. Or in my case, you begin to see that your situation offers certain…opportunities.” 

“Opportunities,” I repeated, trying to understand.

“Freedom. The gift of more knowledge and experience than an ordinary mind could hold. The privilege of traveling the world, watching empires rise and fall. You have all the time in the world to craft your own image yourself. In my time, I never could have made a life such as this.” Her smile broadened as she gestured around us, at her cozy home and her shelves full of art. “Though I’ve found you can never stay in one place for too long. People start to ask questions after a few decades. And the paperwork! Oh, the paperwork is a nightmare.” 

“What do you think made you this way?” I asked on another visit. 

“I know exactly what it was,” she said. “Stefan painting my portrait, of course. A person can never truly die as long as their image lives forever. I tried it with Flora once, as an experiment.” She scratched the little dog behind its ears. “You know when she was born? 1895.” 

“Well, if that’s all it takes, then there’s got to be a bunch of immortal people running around.” 

“If there are,” Liz said with a wistful look, “I’ve never crossed paths with them. I have often wondered if La Gioconda still lives in Italy, or perhaps in France. I’ve never found her, though not for lack of trying.” Her smile faded as she stared off into space. “Of course, she may not be around anymore. She may have decided that she had done all there was to do in this world, and that the treasures of this life were no longer worth the pain. Maybe that is what everyone like me decides to do in the end.” 

“But what about you? Have you thought about it?” I shouldn’t have asked, but I couldn’t help myself. 

She didn’t answer me for a long time. Then she said, “I almost did once. It was a long time ago, back when I first realized what I was. I took a knife and thought to drive it into my own chest. But I wasn’t certain that I could die by my own hand, and I was too frightened to find out. Not willing to commit a mortal sin, you see. Then I thought, perhaps it is God’s will that I do not die. And if it is God’s will, then I must follow it. So I set out to find something to live for. It’s easier than you might think, really. I’ve managed it each day for four hundred years, and it doesn’t matter whether I find good food or good wine or simply a beautiful sunrise.” 

“Sounds worldly,” I said. 

“If we’re all part of the world, why can’t we be worldly?” She poured another cup of tea and smiled at me again. “I think it is the best of my worst habits.” 

We’re still next-door neighbors, and we still visit each other every few days. Liz keeps asking to paint my picture, and each time I tell her no. I know that someday she’ll pack her things and move again, but I like imagining that it’ll be harder for her this time. Maybe she meets someone like me everywhere she goes, and she’s told her story and her secret hundreds of times. Or maybe she hasn’t. Maybe I’m the first person in four centuries who knows her real name.

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