This short story is dedicated to Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian feminist writer and scholar. After resigning from her position as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, she is now an independent feminist scholar and writer. Ahmed is a published author. She maintains a blog – feministkilljoys, and hosts lectures. As described in "Feminism is Sensational," Ahmed elaborates on how feminism begins as a sensation brought on by the injustices of the world. You later learn that gender fatalism names an experience, allowing for deeper understanding. At the same time, the body can become a site of fear- because exposing a problem, makes you a problem.
It was a typical overcast day by the Dutch seaside. Lysbet van de Klei and her husband Wilhelm were unpacking their carriage in preparation for the days’ work. As painters of the St. Luke’s Guild in Amsterdam, they understood the importance of seizing a moment. It was St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas of 1631, but the frigid air and usual festivities weren’t enough to quell the curiosity of the jolly public. The customary quiet stroll, a stark contrast to the noise and feasting of this time of year, was instead interrupted by a washed-up behemoth. A soon to be decomposing spectacle that drew the eye of the good men and women of Bloemendaal, their unwary children, neighbouring villagers, natural philosophers, and of course, painters trying to get ahead in the competitive Guild system.
Wilhelm had heard of the unfortunate beast several days ago from a cousin who lived nearby. He wanted to be the first of his fellow painters to present the Guild Master with a scene like the one unfolding in front of him. It would seem that a handful of painters had like-minded cousins. Between the gawking locals, Wilhelm could spy the easels firmly planted in the sand. He thanked God that he could not recognise any of the painters on the beach, and sent up a silent prayer that no one from the Guild would make the soggy three-hour trip. Wilhelm and Lysbet scrambled to capture the commotion unfolding on the frozen beach.
Lysbet tightened the scarf around her neck as she watched her husband drift towards the whale. Her winter layers couldn’t stop the cold from seeping through to her skin, but it didn’t matter. She was content despite the circumstances. She let out a sigh as Wilhelm inspected the creature closely, most likely compiling a list of angles he would instruct her to sketch for him. The creature’s death—the death of such a majestic animal—had turned into a tourist attraction. She pitied the creature and yet, she also could not ignore her excitement. She turned to the supplies before her and began unpacking. Even though she was a painter in her own right, Wilhelm’s work often took precedence as he was permitted to paint the more lucrative landscapes and group portraits. She longed for a world outside painting bouquets of flowers and blocks of cheese, but she welcomed this small break in her routine. Besides, helping her husband with his paintings allowed her to capture more interesting subjects. She was grateful for the chance to finally observe something living and breathing—or at least mostly. Indeed, there was an odd mix of life and death in front of her. She dusted her hands off as she finished unpacking the paper and charcoal for Wilhelm, eventually reaching for the paints to begin mixing.
The slowly churning expanse of water turned a pale grey-blue in the winter light had the power to subdue the joy of the season. The loudest of passersby enjoying a walk would be overtaken by the vastness of the sea and sky, and feeling compelled, pay reverence to its humbling force. Yet the body of the whale had brought the commotion of summer back to Bloemendaal aan Zee. Life and death were mixed up in a way that felt unholy but undeniably captivating.
As Wilhelm returned from taking his mental notes, Lysbet had finished her preparations. Wilhelm’s easel was securely rooted in the sand. The canvases she stretched the night before were set up in a neat row at the base of a work-table where she had laid out the oil paint exactly to his liking. Lysbet listened to her husband’s orders with the well-trained practice of many years as his wife and assistant.
Lysbet sat quietly outside the office of Guild Master Elrick de Koningh, eyes shifting between the office door and her own painting of the sea. Less than a week after their trip to the seaside, the couple had worked day and night to complete their paintings and submit them to the Guild master for assessment. They were eventually summoned to St. Luke’s a day later. Lysbet leaned slightly closer to the office door, straining to hear the hushed conversation happening inside. Something didn’t seem right. Less than a quarter-hour later, Wilhelm opened the door and drifted past his wife without so much as a glance in her direction. Elrick, the Guild Master, followed quickly after, his eyes immediately meeting Lysbet. He gave her a pitying look before explaining his declination of her husband’s submission.
“Dutch landscape painting is supposed to show nationalism, not some rotting thing on a beach,” he said, “I’m afraid Wilhelm’s paintings will not sell.” Lysbet shuffled to grab her painting of the coast but when she turned to face him, Elrick began to laugh softly. He shook his head and gestured to the row of seascapes along the hall.
“What makes you think your painting could compare to the ones mounted here?” he scoffed, shaking his head once more before leaving Lysbet in the hall.
Some unnamable sensation fixed her there, staring. Lysbet swallowed hard, the weight in her stomach growing. She wasn’t upset to see paintings similar to hers. In fact, she has seen rooms filled floor to ceiling with similar landscapes. No. The problem was that she couldn’t find any perceivable difference between the painting that was about to slip from her fingers and the ones lined up on the wall. That night, when she closed her eyes, all she saw were the brass nameplates on the wall, etched with the names of men.
When Lysbet opened her eyes, she was too tired to notice the yellow letter on the bedside table. It was only after she had gotten ready for the day and looked back at their empty bed that she noticed it. Addressed to her, in her husband’s scrawl, were a short few lines that left Lysbet paralysed. Only when she wandered through the house and took in the missing effects of their life did Wilhelm’s words finally sink in. Gambling. Debt. Bank loans. Overdue. Leaving.
In the next morning’s post, she received a letter from the bank. Due to the length of time her husband had been taking out loans, the amounting sum, and his failure to repay the interest, the bank has requested repayment in full. Lysbet had looked at the sum over and over again. It was too much. She had furiously gone over her limited options in her head. Even if she sold her mother’s silver candlesticks, which were the only thing of value Wilhelm overlooked, on top of their remaining paintings, she would not be able to pay the debt by half. She does know that if Wilhelm’s abandonment were to be discovered, she would be disgraced and probably lose her position in the Guild. Without it, she could never sell another painting again.
When the candlesticks are gone and her paintings sold, Lysbet gets desperate. There are a few paintings left. All unfinished landscapes of Wilhelm’s that are in a staring match with the walls in the attic. The bank has generously granted Wilhelm three months to pay a debt almost as massive as that dead whale. Perhaps the size of the loan is precisely why they gave him any time at all. It was a joking and useless kindness that made Lysbet laugh without pleasure every time she thought of it.
Later that day in the market, Lysbet ran into the wife of the Guild Master, Kathrijn de Koningh. A woman wealthy enough not to be doing her own shopping. When Kathrijn reminded Lysbet of the annual New Year’s dinner party that she and Elrick host, she was forced back into reality. Now Kathrijn’s presence in the market made sense; last-minute preparations for the party this evening being made by a woman who values order and normalcy above all else. Lysbet returned home without her shopping. If she doesn’t attend there will be questions. If she does attend there will be questions. At the least, she can make enough excuses in the hopes of quieting curious minds for a while.
The party was nothing shy of festive. There was too much food, drink, and live music. Lysbet goes mostly unnoticed until Elrick de Koningh catches her eye. He wants to make up for the recent disappointment with Wilhelm by having an exhibition of his paintings.
“Nothing like his recent submissions of the beach of course” he joked, “but his previous landscapes sold quite well and should make a good profit for both of us” Unnoticed to anyone, Joorijs van der Boor, a fellow Guild member, was starring daggers at Lysbet.
After dinner, Lysbet found a quiet corner in the house in which to sit and think. She had no clue how long she sat until she is roused by whispers and giggles coming from an adjoining room. Before she can reach the doorway, a hand comes out of nowhere and stopps her in her tracks. In the darkness of the room and the depths of her mind, Lysbet failed to notice another person enter. After a stunned moment of searching, Kathrijn materialised before her. When Lysbet tried to move away, the grip on her arm tightened. Being forced to endure this confusion makes Lysbet feel a terror in her body that was new to her. Only after the noises on the other side of the door have faded away is she released. In a rush, Kathrijn explained what she would have seen. Her husband, Elrick, making a fool of himself with the wife of another Guild member. Lysbet doesn’t have to see Kathrijn’s face clearly to feel a stare so stern it stopped her from asking questions.
Lysbet tried to forget the encounter when she walked home that night. She was crossing the bridge when she heard the church bells ring out over the city. It’s was a new year. The bells echoed with the last words Kathrijn said before Lysbet left the party.
“As a wife, I must do my part to support my husband. If that involves letting him be with other women to keep our marriage together, then so be it. I have worked too hard to throw the security of my life away for a feeling as silly as love. He is a man. He does what he does to prove that to himself. It is as simple as that.”
More weeks of mad work did Lysbet endure in an attempt to stop her destruction. Alone in the dark, she resolved to finish her husband’s paintings for the exhibition set for a week before the bank loan was due. As much as she feared the consequences of this deception, she couldn't sit by and let it happen.
On the unseasonably warm day before the exhibition, Joorijs van der Boor sat outside of a quaint block of row houses. For weeks it had been his routine to sit on this bench and watch for the comings and goings of one house in particular. It took a few days to realise how odd it was that the only person leaving the house was a woman. Her husband had been absent from Guild meetings since Christmas, and no amount of excuses could explain why a man would not leave his house for almost three months. His wife had been oddly set against the suggestion of visitors. When he saw the woman leave her house that morning to do her routine shopping, he took the opportunity to enter the house. Joorijs knew he only had half an hour to find some explanation. The house was empty as he suspected. He almost gave up his search when he noticed the corner of a yellow envelope sticking out from under the clock on the mantel place.
The night of the exhibition Lysbet’s mind was surprisingly calm. She had had enough time to commit herself to the lies she had told. The room where “Wilhelm’s” paintings were being shown was busy with chatter. Potential buyers and their families ambled around talking and enjoying the work. Lysbet noticed Joorijs van der Boor wearing an odd expression she will only be able to fully understand in the dawn of a new day.
When the night was winding down, Lysbet was invited to the office of Elrick de Koningh to discuss the outcome of the night. When she went to knock on the door she found it already ajar. It swung open and she locked eyes with someone she did not expect to see. She did not look away from Joorijs until she was seated before Elrick’s desk. When Lysbet looked towards Elrick, it felt like the world had come out from under her. That yellow envelope marked with her name in her husband’s handwriting was the only thing that existed. Somehow her body had disappeared. When Joorijs went to speak, and Elrick quieted him, Lysbet became conscious of the dryness in her throat and the heat that rose behind her eyes. Whatever it was Elrick said, Lysbet did not hear a word. The look on Elrick’s face was enough to confirm her fears. In contrast to this was the mad glee of Joorijs' face. He too said words Lysbet did not hear, but she was thankful for that.
At some point, she had left St. Luke’s, returned home, and packed the little she had left. It was all she could do to avoid the terrible fates of people who cannot pay back their bank debts. When she left her house, she allowed herself to cry. Disappearing into the night, Lysbet cried for the loss of her husband. She cried for the knowledge that her life as a painter was over. She cried for all the injustices thrust upon her that she could now name.
Erica Jochim (1998) is currently attending OCAD University pursuing a BFA in drawing and painting. She is drawn to colour, pattern, details, and emotions, and seeks to highlight the importance of looking. She is a painter living and working out of Mississauga and Toronto.
Ahmed, Sara. (2017). “Feminism is Sensational.” Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press. pp.21-42. .
Mehra, Nishta J. “Sara Ahmed: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy.” Guernica, 31 July 2017, http://www.guernicamag.com/sara-ahmed-the-personal-is-institutional/.
“Bio.” Sara Ahmed, http://www.saranahmed.com/bio-cv.
“About.” Feministkilljoys, 16 Mar. 2017, http://feministkilljoys.com/about/.
Header Photo by Carissa Weiser.