For Old Times’ Sake
Lavinia met her old friend María Balteira in a small bar near near the Praza do Toural in Santiago. She had invited her old friend, who was a minstrel, which meant she was paid for her services as a courtesan with King Alphonse the Wise. Balteira was from too long ago for Lavinia to ever locate and archive any artifacts pertaining to her, but they’d still gotten to know and like each other over the years. In fact, they were old friends. They went way back, you could say.
Balteira arrived a few minutes late, grumbling. She certainly wasn’t the type to have tea, even with an old friend. “Where’s the drink?” she demanded right off as she let the door to Fervor slam behind her. Lavinia looked around, worried and hoping nobody had noticed the rudeness. They hadn’t.
Once ‘the drink’ had been set in front of her and Lavinia’s green tea was in front of her as well, Balteira asked how her companion was. Lavinia used a Galician trick of answering a question with a question “Where have you been?”
Everybody knew Balteira, who was admittedly famous, or infamous, but she still answered the query “I’ve been on the Road, of course. You know that’s what I do. Anyway, I’m here now and you can do me a favor.”
Lavinia knew Balteira’s history, most of all from the writings of Marica Campo of Lugo. That meant she knew Balteira’s alleged reputation as a ‘loose woman’. She couldn’t imagine how she, a foreigner, could help the courtesan, who was getting up in years but still plying her trade, working to understand the world and be understood on her own terms. Balteira, because of her ‘profession’, had met many people - mostly men, if the truth be told - and had been the subject of many of the verses that had been sung and recited in the courts of the 12th and 13th centuries. Knights and clergy alike had all sung her praises, the ridiculed, vilified her for her low morals, her ‘dancing skirt’.
Yes, Balteira was in a real snit, and showed it by scowling darkly. She was also a woman on a mission.
“How can I possibly do anything for you?” answered her friend Lavinia, who hoped she didn’t look like she was talking to herself or to a ghost. Her friend was no longer of this earth, but she was her friend nonetheless, so she knew she’d have to try. “You’re still having the time of your life. The highway is your constant companion, along with a good assortment of male pilgrims…”
Maybe she’d gone too far. Balteira was sometimes sensitive about being reminded of her occupation, although she’d practiced it for years. She snorted.
“Not so much. Haven’t you noticed? Recently I saw a chaplain in this very city of Santiago de Compostela, and told him I was getting old, vou vella. Actually, I sobbed, a lot, but he didn’t much care, man that he is. Aging is a problem for someone in my position, you know. Hell, for a woman in my position it’s absolutely catastrophic!”
Her companion had to admit it was true. She waited to see what her friend was going to ask her to do.
“You’re here in this city whose cathedral is too big for a few weeks, right? So you can help me locate somebody. Everybody and his uncle strolls around the streets of the casco vello, the old sector, and I’m sure you can run into O Estudante sooner or later, if you try.”
“What student? Who’s ‘The Student’?” Lavinia asked. “There are lots of them in the university here, thousands upon thousands of students, plus thousands of normal residents. It’d be like looking for a needle…”
Balteira scoffed “I don’t know anything about riddles or refrains, but I do know about me. My skirt also knows a lot about them. So do my legs.”
Lavinia stifled a snicker, thinking, correctly, that her companion was not trying to be funny. She was just stating a fact. She had no intention of judging her fun-loving friend, though.
“So I need you to locate this student and can provide you with a very accurate description of him, right down to his…”
Lavinia sipped her tea, thoughtfully, but with a slight squirm. She nevertheless listened attentively to the minute description provided, then agreed to do her friend’s bidding, with some trepidation.
“What am I supposed to do once I locate him? After all, he knows you’re no longer on this earth, no longer among the living. He’s mourned your loss deeply even though you were at least twenty years older than he was, plus he won’t know who I am. More than that, I don’t have any of your potions to make a young student fall for me like he did for you. He could easily have been your son, and maybe close to that in my case. He won’t want to talk to me.”
“Don’t lecture me!” snapped Balteira. “I don’t think you’re any saint in that sense either. Most women, if they’re smart, aren’t interested in living saintly lives. It’s just too dull.”
Lavinia had to agree, but wasn’t about to tell her ghostly friend her story. That would wait until their next meeting. There was a task at hand, a request that friendship made a task she had to satisfy.
“You make sure it’s him, gain his confidence any way you like, then give him these.” Balteira had a sheaf of old papers with inked lines, the script far from modern, because it was all handwritten and gorgeously so.
“Here are my story, my songs, my words. The Student needs to take them, pretty them up with the editing knowledge he has acquired at University, then publish them. I am not skilled in technology, so he needs to do it. Those cantigas define my life, and as I said in Marica Campo’s play, Uncertainty of María Balteira, they’re my words, not the words of the men who plagiarized me, signed their own names, and ridiculed me as the sleazy broad, the one whose skirt was so easy to approach and explore. Marica left me with this decision to define myself, not be slandered by everybody. At that time I was on the Road to Santiago. Now I’m here, you’re here, and you can help me.”
Lavinia looked serious now. O Estudante surely wouldn’t believe her if she did manage to locate him, because many centuries had passed, plus he might be too busy with exams or something to edit them the many pages.
“You have to do it, L. I need to have my story out in the open. I need people to know how I really was and especially what I really thought and felt. What I still think and feel.”
Lavinia looked doubtful.
“If you do this great favor for me, I’ll gladly share some of the herbs and wisdom given me by the meiga Eusenda, the witch of Armea. Once the student has edited my writings and published them under my name with his own in small letters at the bottom of the inside page, I’ll come back for him. That’s the prize he’ll covet. That’ll seduce him into carrying out my request. Oh, and you can always offer to write the foreword, if that will help make him agree.”
Lavinia, whose teacup showed only minuscule remnants of dark green, minced leaves, put the parchment pages into a blue portfolio made of heavy paper, with elastic on two corners, and nodded.
“I’ll do it,” she replied, hoping she could.
Balteira grinned, pleased at this response, and feeling even better after a few cuncas of thick, bloodlike Barrantes wine. She had itching feet and wanted to be on the move again. The two friends hugged the farewell from the 21st century to the 13th. Jeans-clad Lavinia with her ….. and ….., and a Balteira, older but with flowing hair and a swirling skirt.
Lavinia set out toward the Obradoiro Square, in front of the Cathedral but also only a few steps from the School of Medicine and Dental Science of the University. If she didn’t find O Estudante there, she surely would be able to spot him near the area around the public market, where the School of Geography and History was located.
Eventually, The Student appeared. His seeker knew who he was immediately, thanks to Balteira’s detailed description. (Lavinia didn’t need to compare every single detail to identify him, though.) He was walking along the historic Rúa do Franco, not really next to the market, but it was definitely him nevertheless. Just as he walked past Fonseca Square, off to one side of the Obradoiro, she took a deep breath and grabbed his arm.
Lavinia was unsure of herself and just blurted out “These are from Balteira. She wants you to edit and publish them for her. I think she’s explained it all carefully in a note that’s attached.” She felt embarrassed.
O Estudante looked at her, pursing his lips in a gesture of aggravation, puzzled at first because this older woman was a stranger and a foreigner, totally unfamiliar. He looked her up and down, decided he liked her in spite of her having just accosted him, because he liked older women, even respected some of them. He agreed to the request. Lavinia, slightly shaky, moved off, hoping she’d successfully completed her mission.
The Student was just finishing his editorial comments and trying to decide if he wanted to ask Dr. Rivers to add anything. He was about to forward the manuscript to a potential publisher when Balteira appeared. The young man grinned from ear to ear, overjoyed at the sight of her and desirous of heading toward his lodgings with her in tow, but instead she moved off and he followed her lead toward the fields of meadowsweet, gorse and oregano on the edge of the city facing Pico Sacro mountain. They neared the waters with bindweed and yellow iris, toward the place where women speak, men agree, herbs and grasses have the ultimate power over mind and body, and many are happy. The story starts there.
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