Banquet Forensics, by Marie Skinner
This is not like any still life I’ve been shown before. No piles of fruit. No flowers. The beautiful dishes are there, but the food is gnawed, and crumbs, rinds, peels, shells, and crusts lie abandoned on the table. The room is dim. A shaft of light illuminates the wall and glints on the silver and swims in the greenish Roemer glass on the table. I expect to see the light quiver in the pale wine or beer the feaster left behind.
The table is the foundation. Upon it, a heavy, dark cloth with tasseled edges, skewed to reveal the bare wood. A shimmery white tablecloth, embroidered edge and creases apparent, would have made an elegant backdrop for a banquet, but instead of lying smooth over the surface, it’s crumpled and wadded in the middle of the rest of the chaotic refuse as if someone wiped their lips with edge and pushed it away.
A tumulus of oyster shells covers the half-bare, half-crowded table. The eye is drawn from item to item—each exquisite in isolation, in situ, they’re a Baroque trash heap.
What happened here? Am I witness to the remains of a hedonistic feast, or is it something else? The eye wants to follow the painting, but my mind wants to reconstruct the scene.
This table belongs to a wealthy Dutch merchant, but he’s away on business. This meal is for his wife. It’s a servant who sets the table. There is only one servant, for the lady of the house must keep up the appearance of piety and humility. The maid spreads a dark, heavy cloth over the wood to protect it from the abuse of heavy dishes. With the green runner in place, she reaches for another folded cloth. She pinches the embroidered corners of the linen satin tablecloth, then flings it into the air, guiding it through the beam of light from the window to land on the almost-black brocade. She bustles around the table, straightening the cloths and arranging them just so. She squints when the sunlight from the window gets in her eyes, but she completes the task by touch. The tasseled edging shows around the linen hem when she’s done smoothing the creases as best she can.
From the sideboard, she retrieves the silver ewer, heavy and half full of water, and crowns the table with it. She uses a corner of her rough linen apron to wipe her handprint off its cold, silver belly. Next is the mustard pot and the salt cellar. She stirs the mustard with its long spoon, then settles the handle back into its slot in the lid. When she removes the cover for the pillar-like salt cellar, she sees that the salt has settled. She glances around to make sure she’s not being watched, then she pinches it into an attractive heap. Another glance and she licks a few clinging crystals from her fingertips.
She sets the table with a polished pewter plate, then begins the task of arranging and filling cups and glasses. She selects a high flute glass for bubbling wine from Bordeaux, a green Roemer for pale gold wine—expensive, from Germany— a tankard for beer, and a squat beaker for blood-dark wine—cheap, from Italy. What a clutter of cups, but the maid knows that the lady of the house will require all of them, even if she doesn’t drink from all. The lady won’t want a fork—the new dining fads irritate her husband, so this household, despite adopting the use of white table linen, relies on tradition. Above the pewter plate, she places the lady’s favorite eating knife—the one with an ironwood handle hiding inside its black lacquer and filigree case, which the maid will use to cut her mistress’s meat and bread. As a companion to the knife, she chooses the Delftware finger bowl over the genuine china, because already, the Roemer has lost a mate and the high flute is the last one in the house. The lady is hard on dishes and a china finger bowl is more dear than an entire set of green glassware. The maid pours a little water from the ewer’s graceful spout and spills a drop on the cloth, turning it transparent and green like the dark brocade underneath. She moves the bowl to cover the spot, then polishes the ewer once more. Her tray on the sideboard is empty, so now she hurries to the kitchen to fetch the food.
When she comes back, laden with a heavy platter of oysters, a hock of cured ham, bread and sundries, the lady is already pacing and has already been drinking. The carefully-arranged cloths are crumpled, and the naked table is exposed. There’s no chair at this table—it stands like an island in the middle of the room, so the lady can pace. The simple place setting is already ruined and the maid freezes. She can’t reorganize the chaotic table unless she sets the trays and platters down, but the sideboard is too small for her load and if she sets everything down on the table, she can’t fix the tablecloth! Her muscles burn and she worries she’ll drop something if she has to hold the trays much longer. The lady makes the decision for her--Put it down and get out! The maid flinches and the oysters nearly tip to the floor, but she saves them with a rattle of tableware and rough half-shells. The master of the house has been gone a long time, so she forgives the lady for her tone and her impious drinking. The ugly feeling of the platter sliding on the wood makes her glad she always uses extra beeswax to polish and protect the table. Relieved of her burdens, her arms feel like jelly.
Where’s the pepper? And lemon—don’t tell me you forgot the lemon!
She didn’t. She slips the spice out of her pocket, folded and twisted inside the pages of an old almanac, just as the lady’s husband had it delivered. The lady imagines that he measures it out himself, and she likes to unwrap the little cones when he’s gone for too long—the lady told her once when she was very drunk— so the maid never serves it out of silver or stoneware, but leaves it in the little twists of paper as she wouldn’t dare if the master of the house was present. The lemon follows the pepper, and the maid silently opens the knife’s polished case. Delicately and without separating a slice, the maid cuts the end of the lemon, then spirals the blade around the fruit and parts the peel from the flesh. The sharp scent of citrus fills the room and settles over the cold meal. Her hands will smell of citrus for the entire day if she doesn’t do any heavy work for the rest of the afternoon. She slices the ham and bread, laying neat fans of both on the plate for her mistress, but before she’s done, the lady dismisses her from the room. She’ll cut her own meat and tear her own bread if the three slices and the oysters aren’t enough.
The next time the maid sees the table, the slant of light has aged by an afternoon and slid up the wall. The table is a disaster. The ewer, its base surrounded by oyster shells, and thus clearly unmoved from where it was set at the beginning of the meal, stands open. The lady must have felt the need to peer inside, perhaps hoping to find something stronger than water. The mustard pot looks like a gaping frog, its hinged lid propped open by the carelessly-placed spoon. Vinegar and pepper rime the finger bowl, which stands at a jaunty angle atop oyster shells, empty platters, and the sheath of the eating knife. The cap of the knife case hangs by its cord. The curling spiral of lemon peel dangles off the table. The lady only used a single slice. The silver tankard lies on another empty pewter plate, collapsed like a drunk in a ditch. The glassware has survived. The maid sighs and flicks the mustard spoon back into its slot, causing the lid to clash shut.
Perhaps that isn’t what this painting is, but it could be.
Marie Skinner is a student of writing and Classics. She has been published in the 2019 writing contest issue of Sink Hollow, an undergraduate literary magazine at Utah State University. Art is her cipher for understanding herself and her life.
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