Narrator’s (or maybe Author’s) note:
This story has ties to others on this site. The threads that bind them are the experiences of Dr. Lavinia Rivers from the Southern University of Maine or some institution like it. She’s in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, on sabbatical. That means she has several months to conduct research on a topic which was approved by her university. If she does not complete her research as designed and approved by her academic department and Dean of her college, she will be in a whole lot of trouble. Her career might take a nose-dive.
Everybody knows Santiago has few straight streets and that there are endless opportunities to get distracted and even to head down the wrong and crooked path. One who knows the city and its culture knows that this is part of its seductive power: things are rarely as simple as they look on the surface and therefore it’s important not to assume anything about anybody or anything. There are just too many layers to keep them from getting entangled.
That complexity and ageless weaving of lives and memories of lives is something we love. It is also something that keeps us on our toes. After all, Compostela does offer the chance for immortality. We need to grasp it when it appears and never let go, like Theseus gripped the red thread proffered by Ariadne and was able to vanquish the Minotaur, then escape the labyrinth. (Thank you, Ariadne!) However, don’t limit your escape method to the red thread; those thin connectors come in more than one color and material.
The group called the Graystockings is part of Lavinia’s story, although they existed long before she ever came on the scene. The Grays, as they are sometimes called, affectionately, have appeared in other stories as well. Every character, every stone, every sound-woven word, is part of the bigger cut of fabric.
For now, the scene is the gathering of the main Graystocking membership, two women who have the same name, and Lavinia. The latter has a lot of explaining to do. Feel free to decide if you think she is worthy of meeting the courageous Grays, if she is as quick as Theseus to figure out the right path to follow: the path that is not meant to save only her life, but also the lives of others. It will also save some very important things..
It is ink-dark, air-silent, honey-hard in the place where the participants are gathered. We first come upon a group of somewhere between seven and ten women. They are dressed - no surprise - in varying shades of gray, although probably not fifty of them. Do not assume that because the location is discreet and undefined they are a secret sect, or that they’re a group of nuns from a cloister out for the evening. Stereotypes are to be avoided at all cost.
Look who’s here!
Who is it?
It’s Lavinia Rivers. That professor of something-or-other from the States.
What is she of all people doing here?
Research, it seems.
About us? No way! Who let the cat out of the bag?
She has her own topic, for her university. She’s not trying to find out what we’re doing.
I heard she’s working on Ruth Matilda Anderson.
Anderson was quite an intriguing woman.
Especially for the twenties and thirties.
Almost a century ago.
A photographer who came to Galicia five times.
A woman not afraid to be out in the world.
Never noticed in her own country.
I hear Lavinia is intrigued by her.
You don’t need to be intrigued by something to do academic research.
Some of those people are quite cold-blooded. It’s all about the curriculum vitae and their career.
I can’t believe it. Why did she come here?
This is all wrong.
This is all very wrong.
How do you know that?
She shouldn’t be here.
This is really going to create problems for us.
She might have some good ideas. She’s a professor. She might know something.
What? She doesn’t know a thing about us.
By ‘us’ do you mean the Graystockings or Galicians in general?
She also knows English, don’t forget. That’s a good thing.
We have some artifacts from her country.
Some of us know English, too.
We have books and other things from the States, but also from Britain. Maybe Ireland and Scotland, too. Not sure about Wales.
She didn’t force her way in here, did she?
I doubt it.
Who brought her?
Pilar the librarian, along with Pilar, the one I hear is Lavinia’s friend.
You know both of them. Would either of them create a risky situation for us at this point in time by bringing an outsider to us?
Does she even know our language?
Probably not. Too many people just think they can use Spanish or English. Imperial languages.
She does know it. I don’t know the details, but they say she needs Galician for her research. She wants to know what memory of Anderson Galicians have of her today.
What does her research have to do with us? She’s working on the photographer, Anderson.
Maybe it has nothing to do with us and our responsibility.
Then why has she come?
Maybe it’s not her research, but something else she does. That might be why the Pilars have brought her.
We all know what she teaches, right?
I don’t make it my business to know what foreign academics teach.
Yes, library science and gender studies.
I don’t see how those two areas fit together. Pretty eclectic. Typical American university.
Well, somebody does see the fit as useful, and that’s obviously the reason she has come here.
We are all ears.
There was something of an ancient Greek chorus in the way the brief exchanges encircled the women speaking in feathery tones, binding them with its fine mesh, creating a melodious commonality. At the same time, there wasn’t a sense of the tragic as in the Greek works, written and staged for the purpose of leading viewers to a feeling of catharsis.
Instead, the speakers were expressing concern for the position they all held, the responsibility they all bore, as had many before them. There was no rank involved, no competition, no aggressiveness. At the same time, in the interest of honesty, there was a great deal of indecision. The uncertainty had gone on for years and years. There were important things at stake, and a misstep could ruin everything that had been gathered together with such devotion and patience, such faith.
We can’t let the wrong people know about us.
We can’t let anybody know about the location.
We can’t continue to stay underground with our information and artifacts. That way nobody can benefit from what we have protected.
But in the wrong hands, things can be destroyed or disappear.
True, but if nobody knows about the treasures we are guarding, it is as if they didn’t exist.
The treasures were, and are, intended to be shared.
Clearly, a lot was at stake, and the Graystockings did not yet have all the information needed to receive the visitor. Nevertheless, they did trust that missing information would soon be provided. Their whole purpose had always been based on trust. It had to be.
Additional Narrator’s or Author’s note:
What follows now is a brief summary of a lengthy, hopeful, and honest discussion among all the women who were gathered in some invisible part of Santiago de Compostela, invisible because it was quiet and, we almost forgot to mention, subterranean. We are not authorized to identify the exact location, but you already must have surmised that it is in the casco vello, the old part, the eternal and ever-remembered part. Somewhere quite close to everything that matters.
Also worth noting before the summary of the gathering is presented, is that there are no witches involved, no bruxas or meigas. Not any more than there were witches in Salem, Massachusetts. There is no coven, no cauldron boiling, none of that foolish paraphernalia. The Graystockings are simply a cautious, if committed group. They have inherited a vital task. They chose the color gray after the Bluestockings became well-known in other countries. Bluestockings, Literary Women. Women with sharp minds and good stories to tell.
We have already alluded to the lack of supernatural features of the Graystockings, but it seemed a good idea to reiterate this point. These are real people, with real concerns, and an immense repertoire of experience. They are very intelligent. They are careful, even wary. They do not wish to attract attention.
Gray is often a good, neutral, boring color. It is also the color of so many walls and streets in medieval Compostela. The fibers of the clothing, the minerals of the stones. Comforting the one, sturdy and protective the other. Gray was a good color. It meant something. It always had and always would.
Pilar the librarian was speaking:
“Hello, good evening everyone, boa noite.” Her voice was firm, yet had the curved edges of kindness.
The second Pilar spoke then:
“We have brought Lavinia Rivers here to meet you and learn something about your work. Dr. Rivers is here because she understands a lot of what you’re doing, or at least why you’re doing it. She might not know this herself, but we - she points to Pilar the librarian - have studied her and think she has something to contribute. We trust her.”
A lot was left out of this introduction, because everyone present knew what was being said without it being spelled out: Lavinia’s behavior in the months she had been doing her research in Santiago, had been seen as appropriate for grasping the Grays’ way of thinking. She could be trusted. Her casual conversations over coffee or in a library or museum and shown her to be extremely drawn to Compostela and to aspects of the city that were linked to the Graystockings’ work.
One detail that was added, however, because it was closely tied to the Grays’ anonymous guerrilla culture projects, was that Lavinia was known to cross-dress.
“She may not have known we had always identified her when she went out dressed as a male, but we knew every time she walked through the streets in reverse-gender clothing. It looked good on her, by the way,” said Pilar, either the first or the second.
“As we all know, the identification of a person according to gender traits is something we are able to track through our enormous collection. We know more about what the writers really thought because when they wrote their stories or poems, they added explanations. They have told us of the limitations of wearing skirts. They have explained that writing novels provided income to raise their children. They revealed their love for other women - a feeling that took more than one form.”
This was added by the other Pilar. It was yet another affirmation that identity politics was as bad generations ago as it is today. Classifying people using absurd categories had done so much harm. Too bad politicians don’t know this. However, they aren’t part of this story.
“Lavinia teaches Gender Studies and Library Science at her university, back in Maine.” Pilar noted this in case the Graystockings had not already heard that.
“She has worked some with literature, but more with theory and history of gender identity. In her Library Science course she looks at how women, libraries, books, and writing careers of different sorts are interwoven.”
“She is interested in seeing that women have their proper place in intellectual and artistic history.”
One of the Graystockings, dressed in a charcoal jacket and a lamb-gray blouse, asked:
“Lavinia, what concerns you most in your work? What does that mean for our task?”
Lavinia had been respectfully silent, which was good because far too many Americans are loud and garrulous, full of self-importance. She knew where she was, or though she did. Loud was definitely the wrong thing to be.
“I am concerned that women’s knowledge hasn’t been recognized as it should be. We know this was true in past centuries, but even today it happens. So much has been lost because it was ‘just’ a letter, a poem, a piece of lace, a doily, a recipe… So much we might have learned.”
The Graystockings nodded, while Lavinia carefully added a bit more:
“I think I feel this way because of my childhood and what I saw growing up. That’s not of much interest here, but I can say that much of what I observed as a girl has formed the way I think. I know the women around me did important things, but little remains of their skill and wit. Much was censored, too, so there’s that.”
Pilar the librarian brought the discussion back - as was natural - to the topic of the library, also known as a nosa biblioteca and the treasure, o tesouro. She said the visiting professor might have some thoughts on what to do with the secret library that the Graystockings were charged with guarding and helping to grow.
When the librarian said this out loud, a few Grays gasped: their secret was out! They were suddenly afraid again, even though being indecisive meant the library would grow, only it would be expanding underground. That was not useful to anybody. Knowledge needs to be shared. (Note: This is rather contrary to Eco’s The Name of the Rose, an elaborate novel in which the abbey wants to keep its library and knowledge hidden away from the world.)
Lavinia was not unaware of the consternation some of the women felt, so she spoke again, simply and quietly:
“I have done some work with the history of libraries. Just as an aside, women were often involved in running or founding libraries. Many were in reading groups. Also, I’ve looked a bit at secret libraries around the world. The items they contained, how they were built, how they were run, is useful information. A library might resemble a museum in some cases. Why not have catalogue items like bobbin lace, cookbooks, quilts along with books? After all, these are texts to be read and textiles that are read as well.”
She was silent again, letting the Grays pull the threads together until they understood her intention perfectly. Then Lavinia went on, cautiously, and still speaking simply. She did not want to present a barrage of words. It would be rude.
“I believe that one of the most important things that can be done if a nosa biblioteca, as you so aptly call it, is to be brought out into the open is to plan its presentation to the public carefully. Have a museum area to explain how your library is part of a worldwide tradition, a clandestine history that the centuries have proven to be invaluable. Stress the history part, the idea of tradition, the possibility that some things will be known or noticed for the first time.”
She meant that the tesouro being guarded by the Graystockings needed to be revealed boldly, from the start. It was immense, it was old, it was crammed with creativity, humor, tragedy. Nobody would dare harm something so valuable. There was always the question, also long-debated, as to where to locate a nosa biblioteca, o noso tesouro.
“I suggest the convent at San Paio.” Lavinia spoke up, just seven words.
Heads cocked to one side, there was a whispery surprise at having religion enter into the project of birthing the library. Then thoughts began to circulate and the links between many religious women and the devotion to letters or science became obvious. The Grays could link their chosen garment color to the granite and basalt walls of the huge convent. A convent with ties to Portugal (this was vital) and set in the heart of Santiago.
San Paio would not be enough to house all the items, but it was a good start and it already had a library with important religious documents. There were people who knew how to run a library there already, in other words. Plus, a lot of eyes, a whole lot of eyes, would be on the location. Nobody would ever be able to rob the treasures or burn their building to the ground.
The Graystockings thought these ideas sounded reasonable. They knew that indecision would eventually be the death of their tesouro. It couldn’t remain underground forever. It was useless in its current hiding spot. And there were always construction projects that might weak one of the library tunnels, making it collapse and destroy everything, or just as terrible, open up the secret passageways. Everybody would make off with what had been preserved there.
No, they would act, at last.
Lavinia Rivers would help them. They knew that now.