Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
secundum verbum tuum in pace
She hums as she works, her thin calligraphy pen tracing the contour of her voice onto the page of the manuscript. The notes, perched daintily onto the lines and the spaces, feel as ancient and essential to her as the prayer itself.
It is futile, she knows, this strange desire to preserve that which cannot truly be saved. She is one of the last at the abbey who finds the work of a scribe worthwhile. Now that everything can be copied in a tenth of the time or less using the printing press, many of the other nuns find the work obsolete. Still, Marie labors alone with her ink and her music, huddled by the dim fire in the coldest room of the abbey.
The abbey, held together for centuries by worn stones and wintry air, is the only home Marie has ever known. By anyone’s standard but her own, she should be lonely: an orphan raised from infancy to take the vows as soon as she was of age. Even now, years after taking her vows, Marie does not belong, but she doesn’t mind. She has always been just slightly too selfish and prideful to be a good nun, but not quite enough of either to leave the abbey.
Sister Agnes taught her to scribe when she was only a child. Shortly before Marie took her vows, Sister Anna trained her in the delicate work of illumination. These are Marie’s only true talents, and she clings to them tightly, even as the rest of the world seems to rush forward.
Every day she labors at her desk while there is light enough to see, scripting the letters, sketching the illuminations, and pasting gold leaf. Her aching fingers paint intricate patterns of leaves and vines along the edges of her favorite chants.
One day on a whim, Marie decides to sketch scenes of life at the abbey. She spends months painting them. Sister Katherine, with her hooked nose and stern eyes, standing regally beside a sheep. Sister Ingrid, giving a basket of bread to the poor with a smug grin. Her favorite of the abbey cats, a grey tabby named Wilhelm IV, surrounded by golden and purple hues fit for a king.
As she works, Marie ignores the sharp stares of the passing nuns, who would prefer that she spend her time tending the garden or feeding the poor. They do not understand, and she cannot hope to explain. It is almost heretical, Marie knows, but she pours herself into the pages as if they can offer her salvation, as if the melodies and the pigments can carry her soul through time.
It takes years, and what is left of her eyesight and youth, but Marie manages to finish the volume. She dates the margin of the final page in thin letters and, in a moment of pride, scribes her initials beside the year.
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Wrapped in the warm folds of sunlight which shine through the library window, Amalia Mancini loses herself in the pages of the manuscript.
Amalia has always been strange, even by the standards of her eccentric parents. From a young age, she preferred the quiet spaces of the family library to the extravagant social scene of eighteenth-century Naples. While her friends attend operas at La Scala and debate philosophy, Amalia immerses herself in the collection of rare books passed down by her great-grandfather.
She sits at a table in the warm alcove of the library with the manuscript that has captured her attention for the past few months. It is delicate with age, already nearly two hundred years old. The leather binding is stiff with disuse and she is always fearful that it will crumble as she turns the pages.
None of her tutors taught her to read this style of music, so Amalia is left to guess at mode of the melody and the timing of the melismas, but she has gotten rather good at deciphering the chants. Every day she opens to a new page and hums the chants to herself, letting the prayers which she does not believe fill the stillness of the room.
The ritual is entrancing, and she wants it to last forever. Amalia feels as if she is suspended in time, connected in an inexplicable way to the others who have and will run their fingers along the golden vines and the thin Latin text. She turns the final page and notices a small inscription which makes her smile: 1594, M.H.
“Amalia, there you are!” her mother calls, her richly accented voice invading the silence of the library.
“What is it, Mammá?”
“I only wanted to remind you of the dance tonight,” she replies, casting a tired glance at the disheveled state of Amalia’s ink-black hair.
“Yes, Mammá, I will go up in a moment to dress.”
“Very good,” her mother turns to leave, the folds of her emerald gown swishing lavishly. She stops in the doorway and glances back at her daughter, buried once again in the spellbinding manuscript.
She does not look up from the page. “Yes, Mammá?”
“Do try to be charming tonight. Your father tells me there will be several eligible young men in attendance.”
Amalia resists the urge to sigh. “I will try, Mammá.”
Her mother disappears into the hall, leaving her staring into space with empty resignation.
Amalia is struck suddenly with the knowledge that in the span of a decade she will be married to a wealthy nobleman, with a few children, living a life that she has never wanted nor asked for. She fears, more than anything, that her existence will be unremarkable and tuneless, a snippet of song easily forgotten.
As her mother calls her name from the hall, beckoning her from the sanctuary of the library, Amalia picks up a pen and dips it in ink. Hastily, she signs her first name beside the initials on the last page of the manuscript. She smiles in elation as the dark curvature of her signature dries in the sunlight, staining her mark into the pages of memory.
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
Through no fault of her pragmatic academic advisor, Lacey selected a course load that has her stuck in the study halls for days on end. Who knew that taking Medieval Literature, Music History, and Roman Architecture as electives would have resulted in so much work?
Her boyfriend, an engineering major named Mark, keeps a respectful distance a few desks away as she labors over the countless papers, readings, and online discussion boards. He’s a saint, really, but Lacey often wonders when he is going to get tired of playing second fiddle to her studies.
She should be exhausted, but there is something enticing about history, about knowing what came before. Still, she can only stare at her laptop for so long before going cross-eyed. She stands to stretch and asks Mark to watch her things. He mumbles his consent, engrossed in his own work.
Lacey finds herself braving the cold to wander next door to her favorite place on campus: the special collections room in the library.
She nods in polite greeting at the librarian, Mrs. Finch, and enters the little oasis. It smells thinly of dust and gloves and glue. The books sit shelved behind locked glass doors, their leathery spines in varying states of decay. Lacey scans the familiar room contentedly, and something new catches her eye.
From a distance it seems unremarkable, an old book in a roomful of equally ancient tomes. But as she gets closer, Lacey finds herself drawn into the pages. It sits delicately in a cradle, light glinting off remarkably preserved gold leaf. She scans the open page, dimly recalling the liturgical Latin text, though the melody of the chant is unfamiliar to her.
Lacey begins to sing the tune under her breath, following the contour of the faded notes as best as she can. Utterly spellbound, she doesn’t notice Mrs. Finch approach.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the librarian whispers, so as not to startle her.
“Mm-hmm,” Lacey agrees.
“I put it out this morning hoping you’d drop by. You’re looking for a thesis topic, right?”
“No one has studied it?” Lacey is shocked. Something this beautiful should surely be the subject of multiple dissertations.
“It’s been sitting here for years. Donated by some estate, I’d have to look up the name. But no, nobody’s taken it up.”
“May I look through it?” Lacey asks, gesturing at the white gloves on the table.
“I left them out for you,” Mrs. Finch chuckles, turning to leave. “Take all the time you need.”
Lacey slips the gloves on eagerly, her deadlines and boyfriend temporarily forgotten. She scans each page with hungry caution, devouring the illuminations and the music as if each is a mystery in and of itself. There are annotations in the margins, written in different hands and languages across the centuries.
She can sense the story that must come with this manuscript, the hidden histories of countless people. She can almost hear their voices, humming the melodies into the echoing expanse of time.
On the last page, Lacey is shocked to find a name written in bold ink beside thinly marked initials. She touches the letters with gloved fingers and smiles.
“Hello, friends. Who are you?”