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It was cold, colder than even old Hans – the oldest person in the village – could remember. Pieter said it was so cold that the wings of the birds froze and they fell from the air like stones, but we knew it wasn’t true. We saw their black shapes flapping across the dull sky, and standing like iron statues in the bare branches of the trees.

That story was just Pieter trying to explain coming back empty-handed. Anna and I saw him return, with the other hunters, walking stiff-legged in the deep snow. The dogs followed behind, tails down, too cold to nip at each other, even the biggest of them loping along as if exhausted. The hunters hadn’t much to show. Only one of them had a long, skinny fox slung over his shoulder – just one, not much for the stewpot. The animals were all hiding somewhere, trying to keep warm. “Porridge for supper tonight,” I said, as we stood looking out the window.

“I wish we could have turkey,” Anna said, standing on the bench so she could see out, her small hands balled in fists, resting on her apron.

Her disappointment pained me. I eyed the huddled magpies perched in the ice-rimed trees along the lane. Not enough flesh there to tease an arrow.

As cold as it was, the hunters didn’t linger together, didn’t pull out pipes and light them while deciding whether to go home, or into Veykert’s tap room. They dispersed, and Pieter came in with a great bustle, stomping his feet at the door before sitting down to pull off his shoes.

“Are you cold Pieter?” Anna asked. She didn’t say anything to him about wanting a turkey dinner. For a small child Anna is perceptive. An old soul, Mama says.

“Just my fingers and my nose,” Pieter said, and touched an icy finger to Anna’s neck so that she shrieked and laughed. “It’s so cold out the foxes are hiding,” he told us, and then the tall tale about the birds falling, frozen, from the sky.

While Pieter was gone we had swept the floor with clean sand and scrubbed the table and the cooking pots. We had no work left to do, so Anna and I returned to the window while Pieter sat on a stool in front of the fire, smoking his pipe. Out in front of the tap room, the Veykerts were building a fire to singe the hair off the last of their pigs. Would that we had a pig to roast!

Down in the valley we saw a woman cross the snowy white of the bridge, carrying a bundle of wood on her back – an anonymous woman, dressed like anyone in our village, a white apron, and headcloth; the edge of a dark skirt above dark stockings. Not until she was halfway up the hill did we recognize her. “It’s Mama!” Anna called out, and jumped down. A few minutes later our mother came through the door.

“The mill wheel’s frozen,” she announced. I wondered what old Hans would say about that. I helped her unsling the bundle of branches from her back – none any thicker than my arm. “Not a stick to waste,” she said, as she tossed a piece on the dwindling fire. Pieter had jumped up too, when she came in. “How was the hunt Pieter?” she asked. He just shook his head. She put out a hand, rubbed his arm. After a moment she said, “Well, spring’s not so far off now,” and turned to us to see about the porridge.

Later that evening – we were in bed early and under a pile of quilts, to save the firewood – Mama told us that while gathering wood she’d watched some boys playing at stones on the river. I could imagine the whisper of the big stones as they slid over the ice, bound for the target. On a warmer day we might have gone down ourselves, to watch, or to skate around the pool at the river’s bend. Anna cannot skate yet, but sometimes Pieter puts her on the lid of Mama’s largest basket and tows her behind him. Pieter is a good skater, as was our father. I am not – a sad affliction, for a young person in our village, but there it is.

When Mama was done talking, I thought Pieter might tell us something about the hunt. I waited, but he was quiet. Probably because he didn’t bring back anything for us to eat, I thought, and I felt bad for him, so disappointed in himself. Still, I envied him.

I imagined trudging through the dark, quiet closeness of the woods, where the foxes make their lairs, safe from the biting wind. Then coming out from the trees, and the sudden white of the wide, frozen fields spread before me, bright even beneath the hushed, grey-green sky, about to drop its burden of snow. I pictured the village sprinkled along the valley, the edges of the thatched roofs peeking out from under a frosting of white, everything so tiny from a distance: a cart like a toy moving slowly along the road, the game players Mama had been watching just specks moving on the glass of the frozen river.

I imagined standing in the sharp cold, the air frosty in my throat, when a big shaggy hound bounded up to lean against me. Waiting for me to show him where we would go next. I imagined all the world spread out before me under a blanket of white; and a thin wisp of smoke, coming up from the village, reaching my nose and reminding me I would be going home, in a while.

I envied him.

Pieter Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow

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Last fall I went on a kick and re-read, back to back, a couple of novels about the painter, Johannes Vermeer. I enjoyed both books almost as much as I did the first time around, and they got me thinking about the life of Vermeer, and the lives of artists in general. I see such irony in Vermeer’s story: he died at forty-three deeply in debt and leaving behind eleven children; he also left paintings – fewer than forty, total – that today are known and loved around the world. Most everyone’s seen a reproduction of, for instance, “The Milkmaid,” and prices for Vermeer’s work have soared in our era. A single painting, “The Concert,” stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990, was recently estimated to be worth 200 million dollars.

Quite something, when you consider Vermeer couldn’t pay his bakery bill.

I started wondering: what would Suze Orman think about all this? I mean, if Johannes Vermeer called in to her TV show wanting to buy something – a chunk of lapis, maybe, to complete a picture of a woman in a blue gown; or a new easel, or a camera obscura? I found myself imagining the conversation between Suze and Johannes:

S.O.: Jan, all the way from Delft, welcome to the Suze Orman show.

J.V.: Hi Suze, how are you?

S.O.: I’m fabulous, sweetheart. Jan, what do you want to buy, boyfriend?

J.V.: Well Suze, I need an easel.

S.O.: Sure you do. (Suze might roll her eyes a bit here). An easel – the thing you put a painting on?

J.V.: That’s correct. I’m a painter by trade, Suze, and last week the kids got into my studio, even though the housekeeper’s supposed to keep them out. (Suze shakes her head sympathetically.) They chased the dog in there and managed to knock over my easel. Luckily there was nothing on it at the time…

S.O.: Sounds like a lively household. How much will this easel cost, Jan?

J.V.: Well, to replace the one I had, 40 guilders.

S.O. (with great dramatic flair): Ok Jan, show me the money, sweetheart!

J.V.: Well, the painting I just finished brought in 200 guilders. I don’t have another commission right now, but I hope to, before long. My mother-in-law’s tavern, which I manage for her, brings in a little money. As far as expenses, we live with her, and we don’t pay rent. (Suze nods). My wife and I have ten kids.

S.O.: Did you say ten kids?

J.V.: Yes that’s right.

S.O.: Whew. Ok, go on. Do you have any debt?

J.V.: Well we owe the baker for about two years’ worth of bread…

S.O.: Two years’ worth, with how many people – thirteen, in your household? Not counting the servants? That’s a lotta guilders.

J.V.: I think it’s up to about 400 now…

S.O.: Jan, I hate to do this to you but you are DENIED. (She looks piercingly into the camera). Listen boyfriend, I have a saying: stand in your truth. Numbers don’t lie; and with those numbers you aren’t even able to pay for the bread on your table, right?

J.V.: Well the baker might take a painting in trade – he’s done it before… and I need an easel, or I can’t paint.

Here I imagine Suze isn’t buying it:

S.O.: Look, Jan, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. But desperate times call for desperate measures, boyfriend. Can’t you prop the painting up on a chair or something?

J.V.: (doubtfully) I don’t think that would work…

Suze would probably pull out the stops and get personal with Jan at this point:

S.O.: Jan, have you ever thought about doing something other than painting? ’Cause let’s face it, boyfriend, when you stand in your truth you know you’re not making a living…

And so on – you get the picture (no pun intended). It’s a little depressing; but I don’t think the vignette ends there. I believe Johannes Vermeer would get off the phone with Suze Orman, take out a loan for a new easel, and get back to painting – despite the doubts gnawing at him, and the problems and frustrations of trying to rub two guilders together to keep ten, soon to be eleven, kids in (wooden) shoes. Fortunately for an admiring world, artists seem to find a way to keep creating.

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