Midsummer heat carries his musk up the screw of the staircase, so I know he is coming. I curtsy low averting my eyes, but I need no eyes to see him: that left wrist three threads smaller than the right; privy parts dressing leftward; waist a thumbs-width wider since he wed my lady. His poulaine slippers taper long over the flagstones as he bids me rise and places the bundle into my arms with the care he might a swaddled infant.
‘Make it perfect for her, Seamstress,’ he breathes.
When he has gone I spread it gentle upon my bench and set to work by moon and candlelight, fingers working quick and nimble unpicking and stitching as my mind flies back two winters past. How lost she looked when first I measured her shape, just a girl grieving for her poor dead mother. My apprentice comfort was rough enough but it seemed to warm her gentle heart. And by spring-time she chose me above my mistress to fashion her wedding mantle. I felt blessed indeed to cut that doeskin wool thrice dyed in richest green. I pleated the bodice deep, and fine-sheared the sleeves so they hung and draped, and full-lined every inch with softest arctic fox. At the final fitting, so pleased was she, she kissed my cheek and called me angel. On her wedding day the close-worked wimple of daintiest lace floated like a halo over her auburn hair. The master loved its richness too and had the day preserved in paint. The finest artist in all of Bruges captured them both, and me too I like to fancy, present in every stitch and tuck and pleat. And when the seasons came full circle and snow swirled ermine beyond my little window, she came to me every day as I worked the sheets for her lying-in. I will never forget. Not even when I am dead. How the fireside flames flickered a sunset onto her pale cheeks as she pressed my hand onto the pleats wherein her belly swelled and quickened.
I hold the mantle to the moon and it is the virgin ghost of her again, plain now but for freshwater pearls. Their soft sheen is a needle to my eye, and I press the fabric to my lips, breathing her in – lavender, rosewater, pennyroyal. She moves inside me as I pull it on, heavy as sorrow it sinks me to the flags. I cleave it to me as I once cleaved to her, and suddenly my hands are her hands, urgent and firm, my lady, my poor, poor lady, searching the places saved only for her – my fingers, her fingers, soft and sure, helping me, showing me, drawing me on.
And when the rapture is past and I am gasping and nettled with sweat, I breathe her out one final time, bereft forever of the forbidden fabric of her.
“The Arnolfini Funeral” first appeared in Flashback Fiction, 2019
FEATURED IMAGE: Jan van Eyck “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434), oil on oak panel, Height: 82 cm (32.2 in); Width: 59.5 cm (23.4 in). National Gallery, London
Jan Kaneen has an MA in Creative Writing from the OU. Her flashes and short stories have been published widely on-line and in print, and her writing has won prizes in places like Flash 500, Bath Flash, Molotov Cocktail and Retreat West. She’s been nominated for Pushcart prizes and Best on the Net, and currently has stories in The Fish Anthology 2020, Molotov Cocktail Winners’ Anthology, Aesthetica, and Restore to Factory Settings, the Bath Flash Anthology. Her memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones is available now from Retreat West Books. She lives in Cambridge, England.