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The Dutch Paintings Room

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  The Dutch Paintings Room
  
  by Elena Kalinchuk
  (translated from Russian by Runa Aruna)
  
  Morning crept in. Flowing from the ceiling pale and pearly light gradually ripened, acquired a golden hue, and flared up. The floors shined as if glazed, the shades of lilac satin undulated on the walls. The whole room came to life. Its inhabitants emerged from sleep, shaking their dreams off. Murky backgrounds grew clear, slowly turning into the skies, the decors, the faraway sceneries.
  
  "Good morning, fellas," the Self-Portrait greeted his neighbours. "How are you doing? Is everyone ready for a tour?"
  
  "A tour! A tour! Hurray!" chanted the girls in the "Children Playing", the Genre Scene Number One.
  
  "Is it really the first today?" the "Still Life with Skull" gave a start. "Oh, but time does fly..."
  
  "Friday, the first, and a full moon!" the Self-Portrait confirmed solemnly. "Therefore, I would request you tidy yourselves up and get ready for a tour."
  
  His suggestion stirred up the room. The herd in the "Landscape with Cows" mooed agitatedly. From the "Still Life with Lemon" came the rustling of the tablecloth, followed by the rattling of the tinware teetered.
  
  And only the largest picture in the centre of the long eastern wall acrimoniously flashed its grass nameplate. "As if we really need a tour! We might all get robbed, for all I know!"
  
  The displeased exhibit depicted a half-length portrait of imposing old lady with long face and grave protruding eyes. A whiter-than-white lacy cap and a wide ruff collar. Judging by her attire adorned with a sable trimming, this lady was no commoner.
  
  "Are you afraid to lose your frame?" taunted a tipsy rogue in the "Tavern Scene", the Genre Scene Number Two.
  
  The Lady choose not to answer.
  
  "You are absolutely right, mefrau," jabbered the Fortune-teller, the Genre Scene Number Three. "I"ve heard from an old triptych that, if you stare at a visitor for a long time, you might lose part of your soul. And we all are a bit short on souls..."
  
  The Fortune-teller was the only exhibit in the room who adored the Lady and always agreed with her. However, there was nothing but detest on the Lady"s part; so she pursed her lips and kept her mouth closed.
  
  "They are here, here!" the Children Playing shouted trying to outdo one another.
  
  "Have a pleasant viewing!" wished the Self-Portrait.
  
  A row of school-children entered, tramping loudly through the wide-open door. They were commanded by their stooping bespectacled teacher.
  
  "Well now, children," she begun dolefully, "we shall get to know about the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century."
  
  "Well now," the Self-Portrait begun cheerfully, "we have a group of school-children here. Please notice, what different faces they have, the variety as opposed to their identical, I would even say boring, outfits..."
  
  The Self-Portrait, sitting above the custodian armchair, was accustomed to reading newspapers over the man"s shoulder and liked to show off his wit.
  
  "...And please, also notice such touching niceties as a chewing gum behind that flaxen-haired boy"s ear, and those girls who can hardly restrain themselves from laughter..."
  
  "Oh, forget the school-kids," the Tavern Scene drawled saucily. "Each tour comes full of them. And it"s always the same. These touching niceties and ha-ha."
  
  "And you would prefer half-naked wenches," muttered the Lady.
  
  "Stop interrupting the tour guide, please," begged the Landscape with Cows. Being donated by a private collection quite recently, this landscape has never seen a tour yet. "It"s quite interesting."
  
  "Can we ask a question?" the Playing Children squeaked. "Why is it so that these children are just standing there, keeping quiet instead of running around and making noises as children usually do?"
  
  "Because they are in a museum," explained the Self-Portrait. "While here, one must adhere the rules of conduct."
  
  The school-children dutifully stood in front of pictures for some time and then tramped out. At parting, one boy stuck his tongue out at the Lady. Her portrait endured that stoically, but as soon as the room got cleared, the Lady lifted up her colourless eyebrows and rolled up her eyes. "I told you. All these tours - it"s absolutely indecent!"
  
  More people came and went. The Self-Portrait continued delivering his thorough and beautiful commentaries. Everyone got mad at a group of French tourists who were persistently rushing their guide to visit the Impressionists Room, and everyone got amused at the identical looking, merry Japanese, fifty in number. Grim impression was left by an elderly American couple. Both of them stared at each picture with such great intensity as if trying to eat into it; that everybody had been reminded of the Fortune-teller"s warning about the lost souls -- the legend, well known for a good reason. Even the judicious explanations by the Self-Portrait could not change the unpleasant atmosphere left by the pair. The Still Life with Lemon was the one to be upset the most. It was him, where the Americans ended up spending most of their time, analyzing the herring, trying to figure out whether it was raw or smoked.
  
  After the Americans, a wave of visitors subsided once again, leaving only three people behind: a handsome young couple and an aged woman in a tiger-print blouse. The woman resembled a bittern that grew too fat.
  
  "Oh, she is a very interesting visitor," the Self-Portrait rejoiced. "They are a cultured family traveling through Europe; here we have a wife, a husband, and the husband"s mother, as can be easily judged from their family likeness. The mother thinks herself to be a refined person and, therefore, attends museums diligently. But, in her heart of hearts, art doesn"t touch her at all. Just notice, how nonchalantly she glances over us..."
  
  Even those, who did not know what "nonchalantly" means, clearly understood what Self-Portrait was trying to imply. The woman wandered along the walls absentmindedly, took long time to study the explanatory notes, and yawned every now and then. After strolling around in this manner for a while, she finally joined her son and daughter-in-law who were standing in front of the Still Life with Skull.
  
  "So, what do we have here?"
  
  "This, Tamara Alekseevna, is a vanitas," explained the daughter-in-law. "In the seventeenth century, in Holland, there were symbolic interpretations of still life pictures in vogue. For instance, this skull symbolizes the vanity of earthly existence. Thus, although the painting is of worldly, it reminds us of spiritual life..."
  
  "...The young woman is probably an art historian," reported the Self-Portrait to his audience.
  
  Tamara Alekseevna shuddered disapprovingly.
  
  "I think, it is somehow unaesthetical to keep a skull at home. You know, according to feng shui, it"s even harmful. There should be an auspicious chi at home."
  
  "What"s "chi, according to feng shui"?" whispered the Still Life with Skull emotionally.
  
  "Chi is the life force or something like that," the Self-Portrait was uncertain. "Soul, to put it simply."
  
  "It's a matter of fashion, Mother," the young man said. "The whole point is in discovering how people of other times had lived. These days, Buddha and feng shui are in fashion, and at those times, there were skulls. Imagine every Dutchman having such vanitas on the wall at his home."
  
  Mother shook her head, thoughtfully.
  
  "Who knows, who knows... The Chinese are actually clever fellows, one of the world"s oldest cultures... The Dutchmen, on the other hand, are only known for Peter the Great"s visits to their land."
  
  Her daughter-in-law had pressed her lips as if in agony. It was apparent that her mother-in-law"s opinions towards the Dutchmen were in disagreement with the young woman"s exquisite taste for arts. Meanwhile, Tamara Alekseevna had already turned away from the anti-Taoist still life piece and stopped in front of the Lady.
  
  "And who is this madame?" she asked peering at the tablet. "She is so picturesque. "Portrait of a Lady, Called Duchess Amalia," she read. "Is this a duchess? Then why is she dressed so poorly?"
  
  "Not poorly, Mother, just in black. You see, she is wearing the sable..."
  
  "She must be a widow."
  
  "No, not necessarily. The Protestants traditionally wore black, especially the elderly ones."
  
  "Judging from her expression, she has never loved anyone," the daughter-in-law said and moved to the next picture along with her husband.
  
  Tamara Alekseevna remained standing by the Lady. She leaned her head toward the right shoulder, then to the left, scrutinizing the painting in every way. For some reason, she liked the old woman in the picture.
  
  "She doesn"t look like a duchess at all..." she thought. "She might as well be one of those grannies sitting on benches in front of our apartment building. And, her face is so lively, so explicit. Anyway, she was a lady of good breeding. What a large aristocratic nose! She must have been a beauty in her youth. I was also beautiful in my days, but I did put some weight on. I need to go on a diet and to do some body cleansing, but there is never enough time..."
  
  Without realizing it, she talked not just to herself but also to the Lady, looking straight into the pale eyes of the older woman, the eyes so thoroughly painted by the artist"s hand.
  
  "And I do think, she"s a widow. Too bad. I am a widow too, and for a long time now. The cardiac arrest. Nothing good about that. We"ve lived in peaceful times, but you, you, for sure, lived through some kind of a Hundred Years" War. There were so many wars then. So many widows. You are right to wear black. Nowadays, no one bothers to observe proper mournings, although it"s a good custom, a religious one. "Such face as if she doesn"t love anyone"... Of course, who is there for you to love? I, too, to think of it, I don"t love anybody. Well, almost. To tell you the truth, there aren"t many people to love. At childhood, we were forcibly taught to love: our comrades, our Communist Party... So, I guess, our fuse has gone. And now it doesn"t come to us to love. I only love my grandson. I have one, Alyoshka is his name. So chubby he is, with such little blue eyes, very handsome. Did you, yourself, have any grandchildren? You must have had, in your times, people had a lot of children. This is also right... There is happiness in playing with grandchildren, especially when they are very young. You are one of the nobles, you must have had nannies to care for the little ones... No, you hadn"t? What did I tell you, it shows, I can see that you don"t look like some noble anyway..."
  
  "Mother, let"s go," her son cried.
  
  Tamara Alekseevna took another, the final one, look at the Lady.
  
  "Such lively eyes! You turn away just for a moment - and they have changed. Now she looks a bit surprised. I should remember to buy a postcard with her portrait at the stall. That"s one decent painting, unlike some skulls. As a matter of fact, great is the force of the arts. You look at art a while, you talk - and it lifts up your spirit."
  
  It was now closing time at the museum. The lights in the room switched off, every painting got cloaked in darkness.
  
  "How was it?" the Self-Portrait asked in a slightly hoarse voice.
  
  "Wonderful!" answered the paintings in dissonant chorus. "Thank you!"
  
  "It"s nice to get away from routine sometimes," the Landscape with Cows remarked. "A window to another world, so to say."
  
  The Genre Scenes whispered among themselves sharing their impressions with each other.
  
  "So," the Rogue from the Tavern Scene addressed to the Lady archly, "You haven"t got robbed, have you?"
  
  The Noble Lady Portrait kept silence, as usually.
  
  The Portrait was not about to convey its strange dialogue with that lady visitor.
  
  But if, by some unlikely chance, that woman appeared in the Gallery once again, the Lady would definitely tell her that, yes, she is a widow, but --
  
  no, I wasn"t wronged by my life in any way, I had been blessed with thirteen children by Our Lord, and many of them survived - five in all. But, only daughters, and they all got married, followed their husbands to the faraway lands, some even moved across the sea; so that there was never a chance for me to play with any of the many grandchildren of mine.
  
  She would tell it all, as it is, for both, she and that lady visitor, are so similar to each other, as if painted by one and the same hand, with the same paintbrush, using the same colours.
  
  And that being so, she has no regrets if a part of her soul (what was it, a "chi"?) had gone from her to Tamara Alekseevna. No, not like this; it did not "go", but she, herself, had given it away as a gift and, as it is customary among the elderly ladies, got a gift in return.
  
  Her eyes, the eyes that were meant by the artist to be forever dry, were now able - she knew it for sure - to shed tears.
  
  Even if just a little. Even only if she lets them to. When no one is there to see.
  
  
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