This scene begins the way scenes often do in theater or fiction: a character reveals a secret or tells a lie. One of the two options is so common in writing, but both can be highly problematic. They can also be a relief.
Secrets revealed can be so liberating. Lies (also known as untruths for those who dislike the immoral position of many liars and find the euphemism more palatable) can also serve to free the teller and the listener in a very good way. Some lies are lifesavers and that is not an exaggeration. They keep secrets from being flung out into the open and creating horrible consequences. We all know examples of when lying is the right thing to do, maybe the only thing to do. If we don’t lie, everybody dies. Things like that.
This scene ends in the same manner as it began: with the revelation of a secret or with the telling of a lie. Because neither option is all that uncommon, as we’ve just pointed out, the best we can do in this case is to not identify which character is telling a secret and which is telling a lie. Not identifying who does what means that it will be up to you, the readers, to decide.
That might mean that the readers who think character A is the one revealing a secret will be constructing a story exactly opposite to the story created by the readers who think character A is the one who is lying. Do you see my point?
Which story will you decide to read? Does it matter whether you read one way or the other? Up or down? Do you actually care?
Borders blur, and so they should.
Lavinia and Pilar are standing beside the small shelf beneath the big front window of the María Castaña Bar and Restaurant. (This is bar none the best place to eat in the entire city. That classification has only partly to do with the food, although the head cociñeiro is quite special.) Many things have already happened in the intimate spot, and regular customers know there are countless more to come.
Despite the number of passersby along the Rúa da Raiña, Queen’s Street, the two women are deep in a serious conversation, from the looks on their faces. Their foreheads are close together, so without seeing their facial expression well, we might think they are angry or sad, they might be trying to make a decision, or they might be worried about something. A collision of shoulders or a poke in the back with an umbrella is not going to put a halt to what is being discussed.
It was actually none of the feelings just suggested. However, the conversation doesn’t matter much if we don’t get a little closer. We can do that if we are very quiet and move slowly. No hanging over shoulders or staring. Eavesdroppers should always be respectful of the persons to whom they are listening. Respectful, discreet, sneaky.
“Have you ever heard of the Graystockings? Did you ever run into them in your research?”
“No, I don’t think so. Who are they? Do you know anything about them?”
“Well, I’m not entirely certain, but I heard they were an underground group of activists, and that they were all women.”
“Where did you hear about them?”
“I don’t remember.”
“That sounds a little sixtyish. Underground activists? Like the Weathermen?”
“Oh. Well, anyway, who’s in the group? And why do you think they’re underground? You don’t really mean they live underground, do you? I assume you mean they work clandestinely and are involved in things that aren’t exactly mainstream. Right?”
This conversation doesn’t seem to be as interesting as it did at first. Not everyone has worthwhile things to say. Live and learn.
“No. This is going to sound very odd, but I heard the Graystockings really did do things underground, hold meetings, store their tools, tend to the items they are stored there out of sight.”
This is sounding like a bunch of tired grannies who spend their time quilting or embroidering. They have a place to meet where they won’t be bothered or laughed at. Everybody laughs at old ladies with needles and thread or yarn. They’re old, just taking up space, not using their brains, living in the past. Not worth paying attention to what they’re doing. It has to be something that isn’t worth much, but if it keeps them happy and occupied, more power to them.
“You’re right, it does sound strange. Especially for those of us who are claustrophobic.”
She opted not to mention that she had run into some odd references in articles on the constructions beneath the streets of the casco vello, the oldest part of Santiago. She had even dreamed about the underbelly of the city, odd as that sounded. Dreams about tunnels, labyrinths, mazes - all very common and well-studied by Freud et al. Dreams that were not in the least bit fun.
“So why don’t we try to find out more about the group?”
That was the logical next step in the conversation. After all, both were curious, or at least one of them was. Underground, as much as it frightens us, has such seductive qualities. We want to poke around in it, discover arcane things, maybe a treasure or two, maybe a corpse or a skeleton. We want to know and comprehend things dark, but then we want to escape. We need air. We don’t want to die.
The mundane exchange between the two friends was now over. That was clear. All the ho-hum comments, the parrying of friendly swords, the indirect question/observation syntax - Pilar, being Galician, was far more skilled at parrying - were put aside. Somebody had brought to light a thing that had not been previously known to the general public, while somebody had told a lie with all her might. The eavesdropper, despite any skills she has, cannot sort things out. Lavinia, while not Galician, is not stupid. She is very observant. She is a fast learner.
“Tonight at eleven o’clock there’s a meeting.”
“How do you know that?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Your memory’s not very good lately.”
That conversation wasn’t going anywhere fast. It isn’t easy to keep up with Lavinia and Pilar, either, because they were now very set on their goal of scoping out the Graystockings. What isn’t clear is which of them really knew who they were and what they did and which of them didn’t know a thing. Or is it possible that they both knew? If there was anything clandestine about the Grays, nobody should know about them, right?
This is Galicia, remember. Nothing is at it seems to be, nothing is the same as it appears on the surface. There are no yes and no answers, there is no black and white, there is no underworld activity that is not known to at least a few people. Hence, it might be a waste of time trying to figure out the facts. Just accept that they exist. Somewhere. Facts can always be found. Look for them.
Pilar and Lavinia have walked down Rúa do Franco and we lost track of them when they got to the Biblioteca Xeral and went in. (Note: The Biblioteca is the big university library with nooks and crannies of its own, plus a director who is also named Pilar. For further information, please consult other stories on this site.)
Pilar, Lavinia, and Pilar have entered the space where we are gathered. We were waiting for them. Some of us are not comfortable that they are all here. Some are only reticent about Lavinia’s presence. She is not from here. We see her as a forasteira, what in some parts of her own country they call somebody ‘from away’. Can we ever really trust someone who hasn’t lived here her whole life?
Why do we think this way?
We have to. We have a responsibility. No, not so much that as a hope. We cannot allow what we have here to be destroyed or taken away from us. It is a treasure. How else can you describe thousands, no millions, of pages written by people who weren’t sure why they were writing or did not know if anybody would read it? (Do not think in such a stereotypical manner. These were not stupid, uneducated people. They were simply women, a long time ago.)
So where is this story going?
It’s going to the heart of the matter. Not like in Heart of Darkness by Conrad. That was about a lot of men from different countries trying to colonize a continent. That story was about traversing passageways that led closer and closer to doom, to knowing that one’s life goal was simply garbage. That was not the stuff of dreams, but of nightmares. Like Coleridge’s mariner. We do not have the need to colonize or conquer.
The following conversation does not take place in English.
“Hello. Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for inviting us.”
“Did we invite you? How is that possible?”
“I thought you had invited us to come.”
“I don’t know or I don’t remember.”
“Maybe so. Anyway, you are here now.”
“Where exactly are we? It is very dark.”
“You are in the library, or near it.”
“Please tell us what you do.”
“Women are still not allowed to say what they think or feel, you know.”
“Did Rosalía de Castro say that?”
Author’s or Narrator’s Note:
By now most people know Rosalía was the major Galician poet of the nineteenth century. She gave birth to the language of the people as a vehicle of literary expression. It was not until a century after her death that she was removed from the cozy little nest of the regional, rural homemaker and seen for what she was.
“No, she wrote it. She also thought it.”
Our library. A nosa biblioteca. Three simple, everyday words. The ones Lavinia had encountered among the items in the box from A Tertulia. The box she had been invited to inspect because she knew English and there were things there that were written or printed in English. The box whose contents had been problematic from the moment she had seen them, and which now had created a serious distraction from the officially approved research project according to her university.
“Please ask us what we do, or ask more specific questions. We do many things that are not easy to define or describe.”
“Please explain what you are doing. It would really help.”
“We are doing something that we consider to be very important. This task, if you wish to call it that, was decided a long time ago, generations and maybe centuries ago. We were entrusted with this task.”
“We need to reveal what they knew to the world.”
“They? Who are ‘they’?”
“You should know who they are.”
This response created some tension. That probably happened because it was not easy to know who ‘they’ were. It wasn’t even clear that their identity mattered. What they knew and what they had done were of far greater value.
“What did they know?”
“They knew what mattered.”
That was a non-answer.
“What mattered was not always obvious, was it?”
“What mattered got shoved under the rug as irrelevant, sweetie-pie stuff, flotsam-jetsam. Child-worthy.”
“That sounds harsh, but maybe it’s true.”
“This knowledge or information or skill should not be hidden any longer.”
“This is either a cry for help or a cry of desperation. It might be useless at this point.”
“I don’t believe that. Let’s talk.”
“We are talking. Let’s decide.”
At that point the conversation has faded and we should do our part as eavesdroppers, activists, concerned citizens, and responsible people to figure out what is in play here.
What do we really need to know from centuries ago? If it’s really old, it’s dead. Useless. Or perhaps old means aged, more flavor, more robust. Stronger. There are two sides to every equation, apparently.
Why did all these things for which the Graystockings are serving as sentinels need to be protected? Who wanted to destroy them?
How long do the things need to be hidden before they are no longer dangerous?
Hopefully you have been able to figure out which characters were speaking throughout the story. Hopefully, too, you will have noticed when the author is talking and when the narrator is talking. Or an eavesdropper.
If you still are wondering where the truth is revealed and where the lie lies, please reread the story. You should also ask yourself if it really matters.