Written in response to: Set your story backstage at the theater. ... view prompt



Lavinia had agreed to help out backstage for Graystocking play on María Balteira. It was being staged in San Domingos de Bonaval. Built on Mount Almáciga in the early 1200s, the former Dominican convent houses the Museo do Pobo Galego, whose library she had used several times and loved for its vast, high-ceilinged airiness. Patrons were always looking upward, toward the windows designed to draw the human gaze in that direction.

The church itself, however, was not large and was now the site of political and cultural events, often in commemoration of important people or persoeiros. Its Gothic naves and intimate pulpit were perfect for a dramatic presentation set in a time similar to that of the temple’s construction. Lavinia was becoming more and more aware of the enduring ties between places and things, people and their architecture, and always, their stones.

It’s important to know the reason the Graystockings, the mostly unknown and invisible group of women who were joined in the goal of protecting histories of a certain sort, were putting on a play by Marica Campo about Balteira. It’s likewise important to explain who the legendary soldadeira was and why she persisted in memory.

María Balteira was a courtesan - meaning card player, musician, consort and general court entertainer - from the medieval period in question. Such were her talent, beauty, and love of freedom that she had been the subject of a few literary pieces and much public commentary on her moral behavior or lack thereof. She had apparently lived life and lust to the fullest, frequently with the aid of Eusenda of her native Armea. 

On her final return to Eusenda’s humble residence, the conjurer declined to help, saying she had repented of her so-called witchcraft activities because she was nearing the end of her life. Balteira could no longer continue her heady life style without conjuring, but neither would she fade away into eternal decrepitude. Eusenda, now confessed and her sins expurged, merely promised the aging courtesan a cyclical emergence every year, saying:

I won’t go without giving you the comfort of the mallow flower. When you get it you will rise in the rockrose and the yellow gorse, in the hawthorn and the celandine. You will become potentilla and floating pondweed, yellow iris and bulrush. You will have the fragrance of rosemary and spearmint, You will be the sweetness in the honeysuckle and the bitterness of the broom and the wild radish.

Campo’s play didn’t end there. It ended with a repentant María Balteira changing places with a nun whom she meets while on the road to Santiago. A pilgrim observed the difference and questions it. Balteira had sought release from her torment and had found a solution. Changing places and clothing was like a dual mask. Each woman was able to ‘try on’ the life of the other, but there was also some permanent crossing over of characteristics and more than one lesson learned regarding women’s place in the world.

The lessons were present in a play that the Graystockings were presenting in the church, having sent out notifications essentially to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods: San Pedro, Bonaval, San Roque, a couple others near the Porta do Camiño, beneath which many pilgrims had entered on their way to the Catedral where Saint James rested in a silver casket. The women weren’t seeking a huge audience; there was only room for about a hundred people in the pews. The most important idea of the play was probably the one at the end, and it was the idea that all women - nuns, courtesans, all of them - have something in common. They all craved freedom as well as a meaningful life, one of commitment. There was thus no real divide between the woman of the church and the woman of the road…

PILGRIM- Don’t you think she’s changed a lot?

NUN - Who? The nun?

PILGRIM - Yes. I could swear she was a different person, but from what she says, it’s the same one who opened the door for us.

NUN - (Smiling enigmatically) Yes, perhaps. Or maybe not... And what if we were all the same?

Besides, recalled Lavinia, there was that time she had met María Balteira near the Quintana dos Mortos. She had not told anybody about that meeting, because she feared they’d all laugh at her, someone who had come from far away to carry out some academic research. Balteira wasn’t even part of that research project, yet she fascinated the researcher from another world. Who was to say the famous figure wasn’t still walking the still-medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela?

In any event, Lavinia had felted pleased and honored to provide assistance. She had been helping with props and costumes, had advised the actors on how well they could be heard in the space with its soaring ceilings, and had helped with a lot of other, smaller tasks. She knew the lines by heart, after attending several rehearsals. The only complaint she had was that the play didn’t end quite as she wished. Not that she said anything to the actors, because it was not her place.

Lavinia wished she were in the play, nevertheless. Just a little. Since it was not her place, she knew that dream would never come true. At least being backstage, in the wings, invisible, allowed her ear to become even more accustomed to the Galician language. Maybe the play involvement wasn’t part of her sabbatical research on a photographer from the 1920s and 1930s, but she couldn’t let that detail stand in the way of helping these women, whose commitment to their goal and fearlessness in the methods they chose had made Lavinia admire them. Backstage was fine, just fine, she thought, despite not ever actually being onstage.

Then the woman who played Eusenda actor could not come one night. The reason was not given, and the group was left searching for a solution. They were faced with having to cancel that evening’s performance. Glances were exchanged, but they showed only what seemed to be consternation. If not exactly consternation, something akin to it. Concern, or hope for a solution. Maybe the actor would show up at the last minute. Heads kept turning toward a small door near the small pulpit-stage, but nobody came or went.

It was the moment to do something more than work behind the scenes. Lavinia took a few steps out of the shadows that surrounded the pulpit, and made her offer to take the absent woman’s place. She knew she could be her stand-in, and carefully looked around the group to see how the members responded to her words. She was the only person who wasn’t a member of the Graystockings.

I think I know her lines, said Lavinia, surprising herself. She had never acted in any play, not even in grade school, but perhaps that didn’t matter and clearly this was an emergency. Pilar, her closest friend in the group, was wide-eyed, or gave the impression that she was startled at the offer.

Do you think you can do it?, asked Pilar, incredulously.

I’m pretty sure I can, after all these days of watching you, was the answer.

Well, there’s no other alternative, and we’ll trust you, Pilar continued. The only problem is, you won’t be able to rehearse. It’s almost time for the people to arrive. She looked worried, but not distraught.

They trust me, Lavinia told herself. I won’t let them down. Plus, Eusenda’s role isn’t such a big one. I can do this.

In a few minutes, She went from backstage manager or something like that to member of the acting group, which essentially meant that, for a few brief moments, she would be a Graystocking. Just for a night, or more accurately, for a few minutes, she would be dressed as a woman from another era, and a ‘witch’ at that. She could only smile. The show was starting.

The show did not go exactly as it was supposed to, as it had with the real Eusenda or rather, with the real actor playing her role. When Eusenda was supposed to refuse to conjure up a youth potion for María Balteira and refused. Lavinia said:

I have always been by your side, with your men and your games, your music and your dice. We will go on the next journey together, not as two separate people, but as two women on a path toward remembrance. Not only will you remain as beautiful as you’ve always been - albeit with a changed appearance - but I will recover my earlier wisdom and we will walk together. There is no reason for you to do this alone. Then if men are so foolish as to ridicule you or call you names, you will know how to respond. We are going to tell your story, which is the story of many women.

And so Lavinia ended up changing the ending words of the regular Eusenda with her own. The real sorceresss had not gone quite so far, had been more ambiguous, in her final words to Balteira. In the improvised - was it improvised? - version, she did not disappear and she walked openly with the woman she had served, protected, and loved, for decades.

Lavinia wondered if she should apologize to Marica Campo, the playwright, for what she had done. Her intentions had not been bad, not bad at all. Still, she was puzzled:

What was I trying to do?

It wasn’t clear, even to her, whether she had done it consciously, but it was likely that she had changed her dialogue without meaning to. When the words came out, modified from what the ‘real’ Eusenda was supposed to say, the play could have been thrown off kilter, yet it hadn’t been. Aside from a few brief glances shared by the others who were on stage, it wasn’t even a glitch. Nobody noticed, at least nobody in the audience had. 

The performance ended with hearty applause and some exchanges between the amateur thespians and those who had attended it. Lavinia had wanted to disappear backstage, but the Graystockings wouldn’t let her. She didn’t try to participate in the conversation, however,  Still aware as she was that she had altered the lines to make a more feminist statement, she cringed, thinking of what they were going to say to her.

Then it was over. Costumes were being shed in the little room off the altar area and makeup was being cleaned off in a tiny washroom next to that. Lavinia was quickly and happily back in her supportive role for the cast. Then she sensed that someone had come up behind her and that everybody had fallen silent.

You know what you did, don’t you? 

Pilar was asking, but there was nothing unpleasant in the tone of her voice. It was a question for which the researcher from away had no answer. No amount of scholarly investigation was going to find an answer, either.

I... I'm not sure... To which Pilar countered:

I think you do. It wasn't an accusation. The tone of her voice made that clear.

Lavinia had just done something she wasn't supposed to do, something she hadn't been asked to do. Change the script. She had changed the script. Not much, but enough, in a few lines, to have an effect on how the play might be interpreted.

She had acted boldly, in a place she knew only superficially and with women she had not known for long, although she was intrigued by what they were doing, or by what she thought they were doing. She had altered the tone and the role of Eusenda, rebirthing her so that she could accompany María Balteira on her final journey, which would always be initiated anew in the spring. Like the nun, she had not only changed places, switched them, she had also melded herself with the oft-maligned courtesan whom she loved. Loved, because Balteira in her own way had shared her adventures with her friend from Armea. 

Pilar was watching as Lavinia's face appeared to pass through a serious of emotions and then, finally, had come to a realization. She had just woven herself into the group, the Graystockings. It might not be a permanent position, but she was somewhere in among the warp and weft of a tapestry that had been in the making for a long, long time. Pilar nodded her head. 

Galicians were a pretty special group. They knew when to speak up and when to remain silent, allowing a gesture or a glint in the eyes to tell the rest of a story. The academic was tempted to look for an academic explanation, but there would be none. Time had proven that scientific research was less important than the survival of memory and the belief in what it could do when used properly.

Lavinia was silent for a bit longer, but she wasn't holding her head down. She knew that literature, many classical works, depicted trials for men. The men would be seeking a kingdom or a woman, proving themselves to be heroes and superior to all the other men around them. The individual in competition with all the rest. 

She couldn't think offhand if women had been so bold, since few women in the epics had ever ventured out. There must have been some, she told herself. At that point she knew she would have to find time in her research schedule - such as it was, because she hadn't been working on her project as much as she should have been - to see if she could find the Penelopes who hadn't stayed home weaving and who had gone out to prove the other side of their worth, the one lived beyond the limits of the home.

Saying nothing, but taking affectionate leave of the other women, the American left, wondering where she was going after she arrived in her modest bedsit, located literally only two minutes from San Domingos, which bore the mark of the skilled hand of Domingo de Andrade, from the seventeenth century. Inside lived a time from four centuries earlier. That was the same time Lavinia carried with her as she walked, alone yet unafraid despite the late hour and dark, cobblestone street.

It was a time that she was now a part of, inexplicably and without consciously entering it. It was a journey she was now beginning (although perhaps it had begun years ago, on her first trip to Santiago as a student). If Lavinia had read the stories by Marica Campo, one of which was titled Mulleres no camiño [Women on the Road], she would have known. She had agreed to this, she had a long way to go, she was ready. 

She had been tested by the Graystockings and knew she had not failed. Backstage or on stage, it didn't matter. Other things did, and she was realizing her good fortune more and more every day.

Santiago, City of the Saint, and of all the rest. 

December 10, 2021 23:50

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