Wouter Johannes van Troostwijk, The Raampoort in Amsterdam, 1809

After a night of half sleep in damp straw, I sneak out of the falling-down barn into the thick, white air. My feet are still wet and cold. My back still aches. But I barely feel these discomforts anymore. They are no more than nagging. What I can’t ignore—what flashes bright and insistently at the corners of my vision—is the agony of hunger and the horror at the possible fate facing Neeltje.

Neeltje with the rosy cheeks. Neeltje who is shy but is sometimes caught dancing in the kitchen when she thinks she is alone. Neeltje who keeps her hands warm in her mother’s rabbit-fur muff that perfectly matches the color of her hair.

Halfway across town, I notice lanterns being lit in tall windows, their flames bending and jumping as they struggle to catch. It is later than I thought, and dark clouds are blowing toward the city, threatening heavy snow. I pass a market stall selling sausages and am overcome. My knees sag under the useless weight of my torso and my eyes sting with a yearning I’ve never felt.

But then I remember the song Neeltje would always sing as she fed the fire at the far end of the sprawling kitchen. “Hmmmm . . . No my love . . . it is the starlight . . .” I never could make out all the words of her old-fashioned song. Only fragments made their way to me at the other end of the room. But she would always look over and smile up at me from beneath a bowed head. Coy. I knew her song was for me.

I’ll continue to pass the snowdrifts, and I’ll cross the frozen river to the far edge of town where the stray dogs scrabble over the leavings of the meat sellers. I will find her before they take her to the women’s workhouse. I will explain to the burly man with the bulldog face. I will exonerate her.

Surely I can save her. Surely I will once again hear her gentle voice and catch the flicker of firelight in her starry eyes.


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