When a Saint Comes Marching In

Submitted into Contest #48 in response to: Write about someone who always comes to the aid of others.... view prompt

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General

We all know, or know about, someone who always comes to the aid of others. Some of us could name several people, even. I could definitely tell the story of either of my parents, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear some sentimental drivel about them. The description would be accurate, but nobody would find their sacrifices and generosity all that interesting, except me. Mostly nobody remembers them now, anyway, which makes me very sad. 

Still, I get it. My parents were examples of a previous generation, wounded forever, by wars, death, poverty, and simplicity. They never made a name for themselves, never made the headlines in any newspaper. I know it would be a hard sell trying to convince people they were exceptional. Moreover, I’d be crying my eyes out the whole time and that would make it hard to get their story written.

Fortunately, there is somebody else I can tell you about, somebody who’s just as good as they were. Now follow me

***

Lavinia was staring at the four sheets of delicate old paper in her hand. The handwriting was a garden to her gaze. It was so full of blooms and twirls that she could smell the mingled scents. There was no musty tone to it at all. The words would not lie still, even as they dutifully maintained the structure they’d been assigned, in short lines. She wondered if the two double-sized espresso coffees were making her jittery. Coffee could do that.

The pages had been stored by careful hands inside a heavy sheet of paper, folded in half the long way. The outer cover, if that’s what it was, had a few faint pencil marks, but those would take longer to decipher, if in fact that could ever be done. Lavinia read:

Una tarde de abril, en la que tenue

llovizna triste humedecía en silencio

de las desiertas calles las baldosas,

One April afternoon, when sad, soft

drizzle, moistened with silence

the stone pavement of deserted streets,

mientras en los espacios resonaban

las campanas con lentas vibraciones,

dime a marchar, huyendo de mi sombra.

while the bells sent slow vibrations

through the spaces, and I

set out on my walk, fleeing my shadow.

The translation wasn’t quite literal, but it was fairly accurate. All twenty-eight stanzas had been treated in the same way - every few lines, the original, which was in Spanish, had been set into English. 

Lavinia knew she needed help with this. She would ask her friend Pilar to provide some guidance concerning the poem, which was titled “Santa Escolástica.” Pilar suggested they meet later, just before supper. Near the bar As Crechas (where later that night a group would be playing incredible music to a packed crowd), in the little plaza of sorts and just a few steps away from the monastery of San Paio de Antealtares, there were a couple of tables. They could talk there, comfortably, and without other ears nearby.

It was somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00 when Pilar arrived. The evening was not warm, but the passageway where they sat was protected from the wind and the surrounding areas were full of hurrying people on last-minute errands before the stores closed, coming from mass - well, at least a few of them, maybe - and simply strolling before supper, which for most of them was around ten o’clock in the evening.

Both women ordered a glass of wine and were served with the accompanying peanuts, cubes of Spanish omelette, and chips. Pilar asked for some olives as well, and then a plate of pementos de Padrón. Because everybody loves the pementos and they are known to promote serious conversation.

“I’ve been running around all day. So nice to sit for a few minutes with you,” said Pilar. She pulled out a tissue to wipe her forehead, because she’d worked up a sweat. “What’s up? How’s your research going?” 

Pilar always asked about that. It was as if she were Lavinia’s conscience - or department chair, which was worse - but in Pilar’s case her intention was always good.

“I could use some help with this poem,” said Lavinia, explaining how she had gotten interested in it.

“Obviously it’s a classic by Rosalía,” mused Pilar, who already knew there was more to the verses than just the fact that somebody had copied all the stanzas by hand and had taken the time to translate them into English. The book the poem was from was En las orillas del Sar and had been translated quite well by Morley in 1937. The version that had come from the mysterious box in A Tertulia had to be a lot older. For the record, Galicians usually just referred to the writer by her first name, but her full name was Rosalía de Castro.

The question was why had that poem been placed with the other items and who had translated it? The original had been published in 1884, but people knew that a number of the poems in the book might have been written years before. At least some of them had. It was small help when trying to date the box’s contents.

“I’ll never be able to figure out that batch of things! There’s just a jumble of papers, plus things women used to make, like parts of quilts and lace and the like. None of the items seems complete enough to be donated to a library, like the note para a nosa biblioteca says should be done.” 

Lavinia’s voice showed her frustration. She’d begun to think she was the brunt of a joke, or at best the object of Galician retranca, which was a humor so subtle that it was used with wooden faces and large blocks of silence. It was the silence and side glances that revealed something funny had been said. Was getting her to identify the objects that had been found an example of that humor?

“Read it carefully,” advised Pilar. “What’s it about? Pay attention!”

“It’s just the story of a person walking through Santiago in April.”

“You’re not listening. What’s happening in the poem?”

“I’m not a literary critic,” Lavinia fussed, feeling her friend was letting her down.

“What is happening?” Pilar insisted, her tone now stiff, her shoulders tight, her eyes fastened on her companion. “Can’t you see?”

“See what?”

“Compostela is empty in this poem. All the great warriors are gone. The person walking through the city wonders what happened to them.”

“So?”

“Don’t you see all the buildings she passes by? Don’t you see the woman in the poem - you must have figured out it’s a woman - is avoiding them? She’s not following any traditional route. She’s just wandering.”

Lavinia read the lines:

Ciudad extraña, hermosa y fea a un tiempo,

A un tiempo apetecida y detestada,

Cual ser que nos atrae y nos desdeña

Strange city, at once lovely and ugly,

Both desired and detested,

Like a being that draws us to it, then scorns us…

“Obviously, Rosalía de Castro didn’t care much for Compostela,” responds Lavinia.

“But is it the city of Santiago that’s the problem?” Pilar insists, giving no signs of resolving her friend’s quandary.

Algo hay en ti que apaga el entusiasmo,

Y del mundo feliz de los ensueños

A la aridez de la verdad nos lleva…

There’s something in you that kills the spirit

from the happy world with its dreams

it leads us to dry truth…

“Wait! Who is the ‘asesino honrado’?” interjected Lavinia, her response uncertain, her voice trembling. She was still irritated at what sounded to her like an attempt to get her to analyze the poem, but that phrase about an ‘honorable assassin’ was puzzling.

“Lavinia! What don’t you get about the fact that the woman in the poem is not happy? She is not admiring the monuments to Santiago, to Saint James. She is not going to pray. She reminds the readers that she has an alma feminina, the soul of a woman. You specialize in gender studies. Haven’t you paid any attention?”

Lavinia had no answer. Her face reddened and she admitted that calling the city “cementerio de vivos,” cemetery of the living, was not very flattering. That’s as far as she’d gotten.

“Apparently you haven’t read the poem at all. Pilar was unmistakably perturbed, in a way Lavinia had never seen. Pilar would not stop goading her.

“Look! The woman has passed all the official worship sites by. She cries out in the end: There’s art! There’s poetry…! Heaven must exist. There’s a God!”

Lavinia was well aware of the final lines of the poem.

“Can you not see, for once and for all, that this poem is not about Santiago, not about the Saint or the city? That it’s about Santa Escolástica, Saint Scholastica?”

“So? The author was religious, most likely. Nineteenth century and all that.” Lavinia offered a simple explanation.

“Oh, really? Well, do you see a Saint Scholastica sitting happily in the big cathedral doling out pardons and blessing the visitors?”

“No, but…”

“But the poem’s title is still Santa Escolástica. That’s the saint who sits behind the cathedral in San Martiño Pinario, as you know. The poet has skirted right around the tomb of Saint James and moved us right into the range of a female competitor.”

Lavinia wasn’t sure she should believe that, but she had no argument against what Pilar had said. If her friend’s explanation was correct, then the solitary I of the poem had veered away from the traditional pilgrimage and had her thoughts focused instead on Scholastica.

Scholastica. The twin sister (maybe) of San Benito of Nursia. The woman who insisted her brother stay with her until late evening and exchange philosophical ideas with her, some time back in the sixth century. Someone had affirmed she symbolized the way in which love supersedes law, because she imposed her sisterly will on the desires of her strict brother. That should tell us something. Paintings and sculptures of the fifth century saint, founder of the Benedictine order of nuns, depict her with a book in one hand, and accompanied by a dove.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Pilar seemed to have become impatient, her voice edgy, her eyes narrowed into slits.

“Yes, I guess so.” The reply was little more than a whisper.

“Escolástica, who is not in the main templo, is the real destination of the woman in the poem. The saint was there in Compostela, keeping watch, while the old virile warriors were asleep. Remember all the battles led by Santiago against the Moors and native peoples in other parts of the world? She was perhaps the first person to promote communities of women, in places which allowed them a safe space to reside, study, and pray.”

“I know.”

“Then you should have easily figured out that she saved a lot of women. She came to the aid of inquiring, capable minds, ones belonging to those who had ‘women’s souls’. She encouraged them to think, create, and be known.” (Was Pilar getting upset? Lavinia hoped not.)

“How can you say that? Scholastica lived so long ago. People aren’t even sure if she was real or invented by Gregory the Great.”

“Damn it, Lavinia! The Church needed Santiago and constructed monument after monument, sculpted statues, forged him a tomb of pure silver, developed a mammoth tourist industry to bring pilgrims and tourists here as a money-making scheme. The Church set him on a white stallion and surrounded him with infidels, the heads of which are heaped by his horse’s hooves, writhing in pain, in the cathedral. Maybe that’s the real myth.”

“True. Bloody. Violent. Pure domination. I get that.”

“So what happens in the damn poem, Lavinia? I have to get going in a couple of minutes.” Pilar’s tone was more than a little chiding at this point. One passerby turned to look at the two women.

Hay arte! Hay poesía!…” Pilar repeated and waited, hopefully, for her friend to figure out something which was so clear. That was how the poem ended. There’s art! There’s poetry! How did that energy and beauty emerge from a stifling, muggy, shuttered Santiago? Lavinia had to be smart enough to figure it out.

“Santa Escolástica is a tribute to knowledge or to education? The opposite of war, she opposes the ‘asesino honrado que impasible nos mata y nos entierra’. The rest of the world honors assassins who calmly kill and bury us, but Escolástica gives us art and poetry?” Lavinia ventured a guess.

Pilar sat back in the stiff aluminum chair next to the small square table, its metal surface now chill to the touch with the departure of all light, and managed a faint smile. True, it was barely visible, but at least it was a smile.

“Yes,” she nodded, and put her arm around her friend, who finally seemed to have understood. “Perhaps Rosalía was trying to say here that there is one faith, the one based on the need to silence and conquer those who do not comply with it. There is another faith, based on the desire to create art, which is belief in salvation by knowledge and human imagination. A lot of people don’t see the need for art, so we have a problem.”

“Meaning?” Lavinia apparently still needed guidance.

“Meaning that because Scholastica had promoted opportunities for women to study, in a safe environment, she is the direction the speaker in the poem wants to take. She is the inspiration.”

“Meaning that Santa Escolástica might just stand for the right of women to write what they know and feel.” Lavinia said this partly because she wanted to confirm what she already knew. Maybe she wanted to show off a bit, too, by citing from Rosalía’s first novel, Hija del mar (Daughter of the Sea), where she had written: “Todavía no les es permitido a las mujeres escribir lo que sienten y lo que saben. Women still aren’t allowed to write what they feel and know. The author clearly laments the limitations of women’s voices.

“That’s what Rosalía said in the introduction to her first novel. Yes. She was twenty-one when it was published.” Pilar nodded this time.

“Still, women have known and felt things forever, haven’t they? History just forgot.” Lavinia had yet to make the full connection between the verses and the reason they had been included in the cache from A Tertulia.

Pilar was quiet, seeming to want to say something, but uncertain of how to go about it. Then she posed a question:

“If Rosalía knew this to be true, and knew about all the women who participated in the arts but who went unnoticed, then why wouldn’t other women know it as well?”

“You mean the women who sent the things that were found in that box - which I’m beginning to think is a very important and magical box - knew it and were part of a plan to build something bigger than the Catedral de Santiago?”

“That’s exactly what I mean, Lavinia. Much bigger.”

Santa Escolástica. Of course. Very appropriate as mentor. She had come to the aid of so many people. Maybe most of those were women, but that didn’t matter. Ideas travel, words can be translated.

***

And women can feel and think quite well, thank you very much.

July 02, 2020 20:16

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11 comments

Lee Dohann
10:43 Jul 12, 2020

Thanks Kathleen. I enjoyed reading your story, and liked the ending which, when linked to the title, open up more possibilities about your Saint.

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P. Jean
22:07 Jul 08, 2020

Three readings....each with more understanding and appreciation. Amazingly fine!

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Corey Melin
22:59 Jul 03, 2020

Very enticing read. To read the numerous interpretations of aid makes it a thrill and your story is another example of it. Well done

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Kathleen March
23:30 Jul 03, 2020

We turn to different sources, don’t we? For some people it does happen to be religion or faith. This is not a personal statement, but an observation of others. Plus, I can’t get excited about Superman or Batman. Overdone. Ha!

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Corey Melin
23:34 Jul 03, 2020

I couldn't agree more. I believe in real life heroes, and there are many past, present, and future.

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Kelechi Nwokoma
21:35 Jul 03, 2020

'And women can feel and think quite well, thank you very much.' Love the ending, haha. Great job on this story. It's really interesting.

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Kathleen March
23:27 Jul 03, 2020

I am glad you liked it. The line about women not be allowed to write things is real! It actually does come from the source quoted. Funny part is nobody saw the feminism of the author until over a century later. She was right, at least in her day and age.

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Batool Hussain
04:58 Jul 03, 2020

Another beautiful story, Kathleen

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𝔸. Triangle
04:29 Jul 03, 2020

Anybody else now have a certain song that correlates to a certain short story title about a certain beautifully written short story now stuck in there head? -A.

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Batool Hussain
04:58 Jul 03, 2020

Yeah, I do!

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Kathleen March
12:35 Jul 03, 2020

Haha. Me too, I’m afraid. The title appeared just as the story was finished. Funny how that happens to us sometimes.

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