Mateus quickly recorded the transaction in his ledger, then brought the painting into the backroom, where his beautiful daughter, Anna de Neff, was busy appraising some recent merchandise.
“Anna, my dear, you’ll never guess what I just bought.”
“What? Did you find a remedy that can actually cleanse me of my sickliness or a heart to finally clear mother of her irreverence?” Anna joked, still focusing on her task.
“Possibly both. I bought a Vermeer.”
“You did not!” She gasped, looking up and almost dropping the vase she was working on.
“The woman called it ‘Morningshine’.” He held it up so his daughter could see it all.
“Oh my - You did! It – It’s… beautiful.” She carefully set down the vase and stood up from the table. “Who sold it to you?”
“Some farmer’s wife? Here’s the certificate. Read the back.” He handed her the slip of paper and her eyes widend.
“I -” she began. Suddenly, Maria de Neff, Mateus’s wife, came down the stairs from the living quarters.
“What’s this? Oh! You bought another painting? How much was it?”
“Seventy five guilders. It’s a Vermeer.” Mateus said, losing his smile.
“I’m proud of you!” Maria smiled, not noticing her husband’s growing anger, “Now we can make a profit even at market price!”
“No!” Anna declared with rare strength in her voice, “Any work of such beauty requires consideration, and this painting especially, for it seems lives have begun and ended under its gaze. Van der Meer’s ‘Morningshine’ is special, and it deserves our greatest respect. We cannot sell it.”
“Anna, my dear! Calm yourself!” Maria scolded, “I don’t understand why you two get so worked up over these things! You’re going to make yourself ill.” She turned to her husband, “Honestly, dear, we really should sell it. Fashions change and if we wait too long we’ll be lucky to get much more than half what you paid.”
“No, Maria.” Mateus said with a grimace, “Anna is right. This painting has a story to tell: a story of sorrow, and of love, and of fear, a story that must be honored with profound respect. If we just appraise and sell it without another thought, we will be robbing it of its rightful due. No, we will hang it in the alcove, upstairs, such that we can spend every morning enjoying van der Meer’s ‘Morningshine’.” At that, Maria conceded. She did not understand the way her husband and daughter loved these things they called ‘art’: What's so important about a bunch of pigments on canvas made to look like a girl who’s not doing her work? But she tolerated them as a means to keep food on their table, and over the years she had come to accept that when the two got this reverent to a piece of merchandise, she was powerless against their foolishness. Even so, she refused to help them hang the painting.
The next morning, the de Neffs were sitting at their alcove table for breakfast. Maria sat in grim silence while her husband and daughter discussed the painting.
“This light here is perfect, you can really see his textures: these grooves from the brush affect the color here, and here he’s added an extra layer of paint, no thicker than a strand of silk, and even that changes the color.” Mateus observed, happily.
“And his pigments!” Anna laughed, “He doesn’t paint what the color really is, he paints what it looks like. That dress isn’t just one shade of blue, or even limited only to blue, there are plenty of other colors made by the light and the surroundings. It almost feels like I’m in that room with her.”
“We must celebrate! I shall retrieve my son from the Guild Hall. In two nights, we will have a feast.” Mateus declared.
“And I will gather my friends to join us!” Anna exclaimed.
“No you will not!” Maria insisted, “I am glad for any excuse to spend more time with my son, but I will not let you fools waste any more money on this idiotic obsession!”
“Maria, calm down. It deserves to be shared with others who appreciate its beauty, not hoarded to us alone.” Her husband explained.
“Then share it with the world, Mateus.”
“And how exactly do you suggest we do that? You can’t mean selling it: we all know it would just end up in someone’s private collection.” Anna scoffed at her mother.
“Fine, but I refuse to cook for Anna’s friends. They shall visit only to enjoy the painting, not to dine.”
“Then I will cook for them.” Anna said, “It is rude to invite them to a feast and not give them any food.”
“I’ll not have it.” Maria chided her daughter “You’re not fit to cook. If it’s the only way to keep you from risking your own life, I will cook for them.”
“Then the matter is settled.”
Anna had been sickly for as long as she could remember. Apparently, when she was only four years old, she was playing along one of the canals with her friend, Frederick. They were playing a little dancing game, very close to the edge, when Anna suddenly slipped. Frederick’s light grasp on her hand tightened for just a moment before slipping. As she fell backwards, Anna wailed such that a boater looked up just in time to see her plunge into the water. The boater was able to dive in and save her from drowning, but she caught pneumonia soon after. For quite a while her family and their doctor waited on her every breath, praying that she pull through the affliction. Three times she came moments from death but did not die. On the third time, the boater who had saved her dove again into those waters and retrieved from the bottom of the canal the amulet he had seen slip free of her neck as she fell. When he returned it to her, she began to gradually get better until the pneumonia finally passed, but she remained pallid, frail, and inclined towards illness. She kept the copper and iron amulet, now thoroughly green and red after two months underwater, wrapped around her bedpost, and she wore it whenever she fell ill.
Anna came to love “Morningshine” especially, because the girl it showed was beautiful, like Anna, but also slightly pale and gracefully fragile in appearance, as was Anna. Her father, Mateus, noticed these things, and also how the girl’s relaxed contemplation was also similar to his own daughter. He began calling the painting “Anna’s Morningshine”, and, as Maria slowly began to enjoy the painting’s beauty, she took up the name as well. Mateus de Neff the Younger, Anna’s brother, started coming to gaze upon “Anna’s Morningshine” whenever he could and often told of the masterpiece to his fellows at the Guild Hall.
Life continued this way for a few more years. Frederick, who shared her passion for art and was not discouraged by her frailty, gradually spent more time with her, and, as they matured into that age, began courting her. They fell in love, and both their parents were glad of the arrangement. Then, on Christmas Eve, just a few weeks before the wedding, Anna fell ill once again. Her symptoms did not seem dire at first, so they continued their celebrations as normal, just with a little extra caution not to strain her.
She woke up before dawn the next morning hacking and coughing loudly enough to wake her parents. She felt a strange pain in her chest and, recalling the tale of her childhood bout of pneumonia told her parents, “G-get Fre-Frederi- <cough>”
“You go, I’ll stay here and take care of her.” Maria told her husband
“But… What do I say?”
“He… He w-was there l-last t-time.” Anna wheezed
“What? I don’t-” Mateus quavered
“Go!” Anna lay limp for a moment as her father rushed down the stairs and onto the street, until another bought of coughing seized her frail body. A few minutes later, boots still plastered with snow, Frederick burst into the room and knelt by Anna’s side.
“What is it, Anna? What did you mean by I ‘was there last time’?”
“C-canal…” Anna whispered
“Canal? What-” He saw his fiancée’s tear filled eyes dart towards her corroded amulet. He gingerly took the amulet from the bedpost and put it around her neck. Anna smiled and laid her hand on his, over the amulet, before she lapsed into another coughing fit. “It’s happening again isn’t it. That same illness…” Frederick asked, tears welling in his eyes because he already knew what the answer would be. Half an hour later, Mateus the Younger came into the room just in time for his sister to suddenly chill and begin shaking. Frederick looked up with tears streaming down his face.
“Oh dear lord.” Mateus the Younger whispered, “It’s been so long, I didn’t think…”
“None of us did.” Frederick said, with anger in his voice, “We were wrong.”
It wasn’t long before Mateus de Neff the Elder returned with a doctor at his side. The doctor observed for a moment, taking notes to himself.
“Coughing fits… Shaking chills…” He placed his palm on her forehead, “High fever…” He laid his hand above her heart, “Shortness of breath… Do you feel anything unusual within your chest?”
“Yes!” Anna coughed.
“And I hear you have been particularly sickly ever since you caught pneumonia as a toddler? I believe you are relapsing. You were healthy until the first time, and it almost killed you, and you have been unwell since. It is unlikely that I have any power to save you, but I will try everything I can. However, to do so, I will need some space.”
Frederick looked into his fiancée’s terrified eyes and whispered, “Is there anything I can do before I get out of the doctor’s way?”
“P-please <cough> ‘M-morningshine’…” Anna begged.
“‘Anna’s Morningshine’! Get it in here!”
The doctor tried everything he could and the five held constant vigil over her for two weeks until, finally, both hands clenched around her amulet and looking lovingly at the painting beside her, she went still, and her eyes faded. Frederick saw it immediately and rushed to her side, shoving the doctor away. He took her head in both hands and touched her forehead to his, tears streaming down his face.
“She… She’s gone.” He cried.
After Anna’s funeral, which was held on the day that was supposed to be her wedding, Frederick took her amulet and returned it to its rightful resting place, where it had fallen so many years before, and just one short prayer later, followed it.
Mateus and Maria de Neff mourned their daughter’s death for months. They could no longer stand to see the painting, but still respected it too much to sell, and thus kept it wrapped up in Anna’s blanket. A year and a half after the funeral, Mateus was beginning to consider selling the painting, but he suddenly got a letter from a friend in Paris saying that they were moving to Amsterdam. He decided to give it to them as a house-warming gift. He wrote a copy of the certificate of authenticity, such that his friends would never see the message on the back, and when he gave the painting to them, still all wrapped up, he said only, “It is… of a girl in… hyacinth blue.”