It was one of those Santiago nights, meaning it was after ten and people were getting up from the supper table. Some would even have washed up the dishes already. Others, a few, would have set out for their favorite mingling spots, armed with sturdy umbrellas. The umbrellas had to be sturdy because when it rained, it could really pour, and then even more terms in the ancient Galician language would appear on the stones, in the puddles, on backpacks and roses, in the thoughts of the ones strolling valiantly through the wet sheets hanging from the arches on Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova.
Dr. Lavinia Rivers was in her bedsit, perfectly content with her research, putting together an article - or possibly a book chapter - on the photographer Ruth Matilda Anderson, whose five visits to Galicia were the topic of her sabbatical research. Anderson had been truly remarkable, in so many ways. So remarkable, and so forgotten. Lavinia had come to try to correct that state of oblivion the photographer with an incredible eye for recording the culture surely did not deserve. She thought she could lessen that oblivion, but wasn’t sure how just yet.
Sometimes filling in the gaps made her feel like a female Sisyphus. Uphill battle with a boulder the size of the Pedra de Abalar, the rocking behemoth near the coastal town of Muxía.
Outside the rain was pounding, as if it were trying to soften the granite steps, but not yet succeeding. The two old windows were shuttered and bolted, as was the door, which in English might be called a Dutch door. In galego one of the door leaves was called a poxigo. (Lavinia smiled at the useful vocabulary she was learning.) Even with the doorstep right on the other side, she felt safe. Nobody could break in without making a huge ruckus and if that happened, it would wake the neighbors as well as give her time to call the police. Except Lavinia didn’t know the number to call in Santiago.
Again, there was no danger. She refused to worry.
The rain pounded and insisted. It was hard to say if it sounded the same back in Maine, Almost, perhaps, but not quite. When the mind knows what the rain is saying, it almost doesn’t matter what language it speaks. Just a few drops will echo in a way that doesn’t match.
Then it came. A knock on the door, because the seventeenth-century building where the bedsit was hadn’t been upgraded to doorbell status, ever. Lavinia might have been frightened, but she knew who it was, more or less. She might have been a foreigner, from a country not known for its cultural sensitivity, but she was paying attention, learning a lot. She felt oddly sheltered in this part of the world. It was not a bad feeling at all.
It was a nun who had knocked on the heavy door, painted white now, but probably made of chestnut or oak. It was Sister Casilda who had come for her. Lavinia didn’t know that her name meant battle (if one believed it to be Germanic in origin) or messenger (if one thought it came from Arabic). Or even dwelling place (believing the origin to be unknown was perhaps the most poetic).
Why was it so hard to track down where the name came from? After all, Casilda was the patron saint of Toledo, was alive in the eleventh century, said to have lived a hundred years. But Lavinia didn’t know this, either. She paid little attention to the rest of Iberia known as Spain. She did know that the nun’s name was rather unique and that it had been chosen when took her vows.
When you are old enough to choose your own name, your choice usually has a story behind it.
Roses. Now Lavinia thought of roses and wondered why. Since she did not know anything about Saint Casilda, she didn’t know the young woman had been secretly feeding her father’s prisoners. When discovered delivering bread rolls to the cells, she uncovered her cargo. Instead of food, there were blooms giving off a genteel scent. Perhaps something of the legend had reached Lavinia after all. Or perhaps not.
It was easy to see why Sister Casilda took that name when she became a nun. She must be linked to the strength needed to do battle, with the agility and determination to protect important knowledge (even if it meant a little deception), and with a gentle enough soul to allow those who needed her to find shelter, a place to dwell.
There are times when these types of theories are quite comforting.
Pilar the Librarian had informed Lavinia about a knock on her door at night, which was why the professor from Maine had not been alarmed. Pilar was taking care of the foreigner, for some reason. She had used a phrase that was a contemporary book title, but also a reference to the dreaded door knocks when fascists came calling to haul a ‘communist’ off to be shot. The persons they shot weren’t really ‘communists’, but they were shot anyway. Pilar used the implied connection to tell Lavinia there were not going to be any fascists coming by and the purpose of the visit was a very positive one.
When it’s dark and rainy and you are in a strange country, it’s nice to know somebody is watching over you. We already noted that Lavinia had reached this awareness. In the US, not too many people would open a door under those circumstances: terrible weather, a stranger, late evening, the only one at home. Lavinia lacked this fear and she realized it felt good.
It didn’t take long to grab her raincoat, put on rain boots (katiuskas), and fish her umbrella out of the stand. Sister Casilda quickly led Lavinia to San Paio convent, cutting across small interior patios at a pace that made her wonder how old the nun was. She had appeared to be quite up in years in the dim light of the street lamp, but her agility of stride resembled that of a high school athlete.
The two women, in single file because it was not the moment (nor the weather) to be talking, headed down a long, cold corridor to the convent’s library. The vast collection of holdings were rarely visited by anybody. Scholars knew, or thought they knew, what was in the archives. The documents dated back to as early as 1000 A.D. They would be around a while longer.
However, there were other items in the archives that had rarely been seen by eyes other than those belonging to the women cloistered there. The scholars might be smart, but they didn’t know everything. The women were happy to keep it that way, not out of a servile attitude, but because they knew the knowledge battle was a fierce one and wanted to use a good strategy so they could win it. (To win here means to be equal, that’s all.)
At some point the good sisters must have despaired of ever showing the world what they had been harboring over the centuries. At some point they also could have come to believe that a broader range of perspective was needed, and that it would appear. They could be patient.
Sister Casilda led Lavinia to an ornate ledge of nearly-black wood. It turned out to be a long table, not just a ledge. Its surface was separated into three areas by the items grouped in each third of the table. So, in the third on the left there was a volume that was nearly two inches thick. In the far upper corner of the table there seemed to be two more volumes just like it.
In the middle third of the dark table lay a single volume, although the signatures or page groupings inside the heavy leather covers were not themselves bound together. An ancient form of the ring binder? More sets of signatures could be added, like chapters in a book. A book that is continuously being written.
In the right hand portion of the table Lavinia could make out a number of manuscripts, perhaps as many as nine or ten, all carefully arranged in flower formation. Perhaps like rose petals?
Sister Casilda was speaking to her in the softest of voices:
I will leave you now for a while. What I - we - would like you to do is to look at these things and see what you make of them. When I return, we can talk. You can use something to write with by hand if internet reception isn’t possible here.
She didn’t say how long she would be gone. She had also trusted Lavinia not to steal or harm the documents. Nobody would ever do that in a million years back home or probably anywhere in Europe. Something was going on here, and Lavinia was intrigued. She could play their game.
The thick catalogue on the left was a listing of the holdings of the archive. An alternative list, that is. Not the ones the scholars knew about. The works had been written by women, some prior to the founding of the order in Santiago and sent to its library to keep them safe. After all, the convent had very thick walls. It also might have a deep cellar-like area, reaching down into the geographical heart of the city.
The two similar volumes, sitting where the table melted into the shadows, might have been for different centuries. Or maybe each volume, nearly two inches thick, represented a year of acquisitions? That was unlikely. Although the paper used to record the catalogue was definitely a lot thicker. Lavinia felt kind of stupid then.
Wait, it isn’t paper at all, it’s parchment. Are these three volumes the whole set or are they being displayed here for me as a sample?
Unfortunately, Dr. Rivers felt unable to proceed as she would have liked - slowly noting the dates and other content. Even just the volume she could pick up in her hands (using a tissue) was a mammoth task. Normally artifacts like that were scanned. Libraries were the big winners in the technology arena as far as digitizing resources. She had to scan (play on words) the other two sections in order to sort out what was expected of her.
The middle third was easy enough. It was titled, and seemed to be the list of authors (female) and works that were actually in San Paio’s archives.
Oh, wait, so maybe the first volume is a catalogue of all the things women have written, not a list of what is here between these walls...
Lavinia realized that had to be the case when she went on to the last section. This one held examples of texts from the list of the convent’s holdings. These rose petals or books had been brought out from the archives for her to see. Suddenly, she gasped and burst into shaking sobs.
She had figured out what was lying before her. What they had chosen to show her.
It was a test. A test like the trials of mythical, mythological, and literary heroes we all know. Lavinia knew she was reading a visual narrative, starting on the right with a few works, passing to the middle, where the complete list is provided. Then to the left is the proof the even the middle catalogue, large as it is, only represents a limited part of all the things written by women.
It was kind of like an art installation, if you thought about it.
It was the sobs that brought Sister Casilda running. On her ageless face was a broad smile. She had lovely teeth. She put soft hands on Lavinia’s shoulders, and asked a question whose answer she already knew:
What did you find?
Lavinia had clearly seen the battleground. Why is war necessary, anyway? The more knowledge in the world, the better. These voices that had fallen, like trees, in a wilderness, should see the light. However, history has taught us that an avalanche of information can create panic. How to release this treasure to the world without losing it, without having it slip through the fingers of the centuries?
We had hoped you would like to join us. We welcome your perspective. Casilda explained, unnecessarily.
Lavinia nodded, because her own sobs had told her she could not walk away from this. It was not a women’s library, but rather a library of women! Why, she wanted to know already, had these archives been created? How had they been kept secret so long? Who was making the decision now? She speculated, but realized she needed to listen to the eternal nun who accompanied her.
Secrecy was required in the past, but now our Order wanted guidance on what to do. We went to Pilar the Librarian, because she heads the Biblioteca Xeral and is very wise. We trust her as well. It was then that we learned about the Graystockings and felt safety in numbers. You may or may not know there are fewer than twenty of us now.
Casilda seemed to take it for granted that her listener was aware of who the Graystockings were. Her listener did, in fact, know, which made the nun smile again.
Lavinia was already thinking of ways to use her expertise to work with the women from here and there, to quote Cunqueiro. They were ways that might or might not have relevance to her sabbatical research on the forgotten photographer.
She suspected they did, though.