Louise arrived late for her second homecare client of the day. At fifty-nine, she might be on the cusp of elderly herself. The beginning of spring marked her fifth year of employment with in-home care. She hadn’t missed teaching art to tired and cranky kids for one minute. Louise quit the school and her grumpy husband in the same month. Now it was just the gentle-folk, as she referred to her clients.
The sweetest of her elderly ladies, Vera, stood expectantly at her front door.
“What’s the matter, Louise?”
“Busy morning, Vera. So, what have you been up to this week?”
“This and that. To be honest, I can’t remember. Um, actually I think I might have deadheaded the roses.”
“Oh, excellent. Perfect timing for spring and a bit of fresh air is good for you.” Louise hadn’t noticed rose bushes in Vera’s tiny garden.
“Yes, something like that,” Vera added.
There was something different about today, but Louise couldn’t put her finger on it. She sat down opposite Vera. A partially completed jigsaw puzzle lay on her kitchen table. “The jigsaw’s coming along.”
“Thank you,” Vera replied.
The puzzle depicted Judith Slaying Holofernes. Vera had chosen it when they were in the thrift shop, surprising Louise that she’d picked out such a thing. Despite it being an oddly macabre subject for a jigsaw, she did admire the painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Vera appeared to be transfixed by the picture on the box. Louise became distracted by a lovely art deco vase, and before she knew it, Vera had taken the jigsaw to the cashier, paid and walked out. Vera was agile for a woman of her years and Louise had to rush to catch up with her.
They scrutinised the puzzle together, mesmerised by the emerging painting and the tiny pieces yet to find their home. It was a pleasure for Louise to see how such a congenial pastime could encourage an alert mind.
“Would you like me to make some tea?” Vera always seemed more content after a cuppa and biscuit.
“No. Tell me more about the painting. I have forgotten most of what you said last week. I do recall being fascinated. Did you say he was asleep, this Hola what’s-his-name?”
“Holofernes. And yes, she did the deed as he slept.” Vera’s forgetfulness would have to be written up. Would it, though? Let her be, thought Louise.
“Oh, yes, that’s right. I bet he snored.” Vera made a croaky sound.
Louise knew it to be her laugh. She watched as Vera fitted another piece, Judith’s hand clasping the sword.
“Ha! Yes, he probably did, Vera.”
“My late husband was a snorer.”
Louise realised what the difference was when she’d first arrived. “There’s no noise coming from next door.”
“Oh, no, no. I sorted it out.”
“So, you talked to him?”
“The man, did you speak to him about the loud music?”
“He’s quiet, isn’t he? Such a racket coming from his flat. Much better today. That fellow drinks like a fish, you know.” Vera picked up another puzzle piece, slotting it in place to complete the sword.
“What did you say to him?” Louise noted a hint of confusion on Vera’s face. “You must have been very convincing?”
“Yes, I think I was.” Vera chose another piece, and with a sigh of satisfaction, it fitted correctly.
Vera had worked on the section where the sword slices through Holofernes’s neck, his terrified expression with his gaping mouth, the spray of blood. Louise looked for the pieces that formed Judith’s torso and head. The puzzle was half done. With all of the borders completed, Artemisia’s grim masterpiece, in one thousand pieces, had begun to emerge.
A garden saw lay on the sideboard. “Doing a bit of pruning, Vera?”
“Oh, I forget where that goes.” A look of annoyance ruptured Vera’s face after a piece she tried failed to fit.
“Perhaps it should go in the broom cupboard. Or—”
“Yes, that’s it!” Vera said sharply as she slipped the last piece with Judith’s sword into place. “The other day, you were telling me about that painter girl.”
Louise looked up and stared at her client. “Artemisia?”
“You said she’d suffered at the hands of horrible men.”
“Well, yes.” Louise felt herself slipping into teacher mode. “Despite that, she had great resilience and was a remarkably gifted painter. As a subject, Judith was an obvious choice because—”
“I’ll make tea.” Vera picked up the saw as she walked into the kitchen area.
“Oh. Okay, then. Milk and one sugar for me.” Vera had refused Louise’s offer of tea only minutes before. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to make a few notes, for the record.
“Vera, I’m impressed that you managed to persuade the man next door.” Louise looked up from the puzzle to see Vera holding the pruning saw as if she didn’t know what it was, turning it over in her hands.
“Oh dear,” Vera said quietly.
“What is it?” Louise resumed her gaze at the jigsaw and spotted the piece she’d been looking for.
“I think I might have done something I shouldn’t have.”
Louise pushed the piece into position, spellbound by Judith’s fearless face in deep concentration as she sawed off her tormentor’s head. “Did you, Vera?”
Chris Dreyfus is an Australian writer of fiction and a visual artist. His characters drive the narratives often with a good dose of dark humour. He has produced short stories and several novellas. Shortlisted for an Australian literary prize, he has published stories in magazines in Australia and overseas.