Dr. Lavinia Rivers was stiffly propped against the wall of her bedsit. Her hazel eyes were too horizontal. Her arms, like stiff wings, hovered somewhere near her waist. Anyone watching her would probably come to one of two conclusions: (1) That she was not feeling well or was tired from the activities of the day; or (2) That she was about to explode. She was feeling fine, but was indeed tired, having walked the better part of ten kilometers through the streets of Compostela that day. She was not going to explode, but she was going to do something else: she was going to have an honest talk with herself.
This had come about because earlier in the day, walking along Rúa Nova, Lavinia had run into Pilar. Her friend had asked how the sabbatical research was going, if she’d written anything yet, and how many weeks she had left before she returned to the U.S.
There was obviously no reason to be angry with Pilar, whose only motive was concern, but Lavinia sure could get angry with herself. She prepared and ate a simple supper, scowling the whole time, then washed up her plate and utensils. After that, she went to retrieve some paper from a drawer, and then sat down again at the table. The first papers were her sabbatical research proposal and the rest, half a dozen folios or so, were blank.
First, Dr. Rivers reread her proposal a couple of times. She had been so pleased with her idea while writing it. It had been bold of her to say she could spend a few months in another culture and country and come back having completed all her research, but she knew the woman who was the focus of her study had been unjustly forgotten in her own country. That had led her to want to study the Galicians’ attitudes toward Ruth, all of which were positive. Nice, neat, academic, planned, put together with clarity and creativity. Or so I thought.
Any research project requires reading, but Lavinia had been only reading, not outlining, not writing, not anything. Reading and rereading Anderson’s book with photographs, Gallegan Provinces of Spain. Pontevedra & La Coruña. 1st (and only) edition, The Hispanic Society of America, 1939. That was basically all that she had done in all the time she’d been in Santiago. She had also been planning trips to some of the places Anderson had described, checking prices for rental cars, possible lodging, etc. The problem was, she had said she would be studying the Galicians’ attitudes and instead of doing that she was spending her days - and some nights - on planning, pricing, looking at maps online. She had spent a fair amount of time on this, but she knew her wheels were spinning. She wasn’t making any headway.
What is wrong with me? What am I avoiding?
Despite her questions, Lavinia knew full well what had happened. The mysterious box from the remodeling project at A Tertulia bar and restaurant had begun to distract her. She hadn’t been able to resist the task, one she’d been given purely by accident, of identifying the contents, which also (just for the record) seemed to be connected to women. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a sleuth by profession, because - she told herself. She taught gender studies, right? She could take a little time off and help the people who trusted her to decipher the English of the papers. She had taken a lot of time off to help.
Except that’s not what I came here to do. If I have nothing to show when I return, this is the last sabbatical they’re ever going to give me.
Lavinia definitely knew what had happened. She was not feeling comfortable with the research plans that previously had seemed so exciting. Had she just lost interest in her topic? A serious scholar just doesn’t do that.
Obviously, I’m not the serious scholar I thought I was. So much for professional arrogance. Serves me right, I’d say.
Lavinia had, through the stern talking-to she was giving herself, figured out Anderson the female photographer in a foreign country, was in fact still of interest to her, but that now she didn’t care a great deal about what Galicians thought of the American who had visited five times before the Spanish Civil War had started in 1936. What Galicians thought of Ruth Matilda was all available online. There were articles as well as exhibits of her photographs, books with lengthy, admiring introductions and analyses. The Galicians really loved looking at how they had been photographed in natural settings, with typical attire and tools, at social and religious events. Times certainly had changed, but those photographs had definitely captured the people and their surroundings. The ethnographic value of the photographs was incalculable.
So why am I hemming and hawing around? She finally had to admit that she was more interested now in what Anderson had written rather than what she had photographed. She wanted to hear her voice, try to understand what was the real motivation for the tireless travel with a somewhat cranky father, to capture images of a people she didn’t know but had met through a series of paintings. The Spanish artist Sorolla’s portraits of Galicia, located in The Hispanic Society because he signed a contract with the Director, had first been displayed in 1926. That wasn’t too long before Ruth Matilda Anderson made her first trip to Europe. Everybody knew Sorolla’s work, which were masterpieces because of the use of light and color, but nobody knew who Ruth was. Ruth, however, was sent across the ocean to photograph what had been painted, which could have been a little redundant, and odd, given that she worked mostly with black and white images.
Maybe her book hadn’t been much read in the U.S., but it would have had no readership at all in Galicia, where the book would be expensive and anyway was in English. Even today, few have read Gallegan Provinces. yet many know the photographs and have marveled at her eye for their culture. Nobody had asked why a young woman had been sent to document what had already been recognized as exquisite art. What had the Director been thinking and, more importantly, what did she think she was going to accomplish?
The idea for the proposal had been a really good one. It could lead to several articles or maybe a book. It was ideal for a series on gender issues, Lavinia told herself. She knew this was playing the academic game, which still included the old cliché of publish or perish. It was just part of what you had to do if you wanted to earn tenure and promotions.
That was the problem. As much as she enjoyed her job, Lavinia was lacking in the urge to put herself on display through an expansive curriculum vitae. Funny how she’d never questioned her profession, but now she was doing that very thing. It was what was behind her inaction, but she couldn’t understand what was effecting the change.
I simply want to read her as a narrator, I mean, try to understand who she was. It’s odd, but I just want to go with her, retrace her steps, discuss her photographic technique with her. I want to put myself in her shoes. I want her to be alive There’s no ‘research’ in that. Besides, she looks a little conservative and old maidish in the few photos of her that were available. A bit of an odd duck, from Nebraska of all places.
Had she just used the term old maidish? She was almost thinking like a groupie, wasn’t she? Embarrassing. Childish.
Lavinia was both angry and ashamed of what she had just thought. Nobody says old maid any more. Probably the children’s card game has even been banned for its politically incorrect terms. Nobody classifies women according to their marital status, demeaning them if they haven’t chosen to acquire a husband. This was a really bad sign that something had shifted.
At this point, that shift had created a problem. Lavinia now saw the research that had seemed so original could become just a search, locate, categorize mission. It meant what she’d planned to do was, after all, just a way of playing the academic game.
I’ve played it successfully so far, so what is happening?
Why had her progress, as little as it had been, ground to a halt?
If I read Ruth as a person who’s alive and telling me her story, then I can’t go to the places in her book, that’s what has happened. Those places are nothing like what they were in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that she wrote her book hoping I would discover it and listen. She writes really well, has a vast vocabulary, knows how to identify even down to the parts of the wagons drawn by oxen. Was this part of the task of photographing costumes? Not likely.
The biggest problem is, the places she captures in words and photographs are too changed to coincide much at all. People don’t often dress in the costumes she was sent to document with her camera. The ways the feiras take place now was completely altered. Cattle don’t lumber into the center of Compostela any more, for example. Lots of picturesque little huts are gone, replaced by ugly urban developments with no personality.
That gap between her present and my present is excruciatingly painful.
Lavinia wasn’t fazed. She knew she had to face her embarrassment at not being the serious researcher she’d thought she was.
I simply want to tell the story of Ruth, her mastery of her profession when few women could claim that status. I want to tell her story because it’s about this land, Galicia, that won’t stay still beneath my feet. That’s what I want to do. I think if I had been her, I too would have made five trips here, by ship, and lugging all that camera equipment around.
(So why don’t you do it?)
I need to tell Ruth’s story, but here I am spending more time on a chance conversation about a box full of odd things that just popped out of a wall during remodeling of an old building. This couldn’t possibly get more boring, but I can’t help myself.
(Are you sure it was just chance?)
(Why did they ask you to look at the contents of the old box? There was nobody else who could sort them out and make them a list?)
Lavinia only knew that her friend Xan, head chef and part owner of the restaurant she went to eat as often as she could, had told her his friend had a box and ... she’d offered almost before the word yes was out of her mouth. It was the old curiosity she’d had since she was a little girl. Or perhaps, the old tendency toward attention deficit syndrome she’d always suspected she had. It wasn’t a sign of a serious scholar. Then again, all she’d thought she’d do was take a look at the still-unidentified items.
No, something more than cat-killing curiosity was going on here.
Lavinia hadn’t figured it out yet and she was running out of time.
“All right, get off that dime and get busy with that box!”
“Who’s here?” It was dark and Lavinia couldn’t see anything, but she suspected it was someone she knew.
“Not the time to talk. We’ve got work to do.”
“Who are we?” Lavinia asked, but she really meant “Who are you?”
Ruth didn’t think they had time for formalities. There was work to be done and Lavinia didn’t seem to realize that. What was wrong with her?
“Start going through that damned box and sort the things in it. What is there?” (Ruth had a pretty good idea, but she wanted Lavinia to tell her.)
“Books, at least a couple of things translated from Spanish or Galician into English, maybe a letter or two.”
“Nothing else?” Ruth acted like she didn’t believe Lavinia.
“There are some odd things that don’t seem like they belong with the papers and books. A part of a quilt. Some old bobbin lace - nobody does that any more. If I looked more carefully, something else could be mixed up with the rest.” Lavinia didn’t want to confess that she wasn’t sure she was accurate in her description, in part because the contents had seemed to increase, with new things appearing each time she went to examine the box. She knew that sounded unreasonable, but there was no explanation for the fact that the times she’d gone back and opened it, if she slid her had down one side or tested the lining - because there was a lining - something she hadn’t seen yet would emerge.
“Pay more attention. There’s a reason those things were put together years ago. Somebody knew the pieces fit.”
‘It’s not a puzzle,” mumbled Lavinia.
“How do you know?” replied Ruth. “Didn’t you say there was a note that indicated the things were para a nosa biblioteca? For our library.”
(How did she know about that note?)
“Yes, but I never told you about it. I never told anybody.”
“So figure out where that library is and to whom it belongs,” instructed Ruth, becoming impatient, but keeping her grammatical structure intact.
“I have no idea,” sulked Lavinia, knowing her response sounded whiny.
“Where do we find libraries?”
“Huh? What does that mean?”
“I mean, who has libraries, what institutions or societies house them? Are they always just for books?
The answer shouldn’t be hard to come by for a person who was trained in library science as well as gender theory.
“Well there are official, public libraries and there are private ones that only a few have the ability to access.”
“Which one do you think was supposed to get the box?”
“I doubt it was intended for the Universidade de Santiago or even for a private library. I mean, what does ‘our library’ mean?”
“So what if this was a library not many people knew about?
You are finally starting to think. Find the framework, the loom, the context. Call it what you like, just don’t see it merely as a box of stuff. Find the motive. Find out who thought those things mattered enough to be added to a collection. Find these things out. This isn’t difficult, you know, and you are running out of time.
(Why was a woman from a century ago making things so difficult?)
Things are about to get even more difficult, but Lavinia doesn’t know that.
Maybe we should feel sorry for her. Or maybe we should be worried.
“Maybe I should go back to A Tertulia tomorrow.”
Lavinia was speaking to the air, she knew, but she said it anyway.
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Hi Kathleen, I'm in your critique circle! Really nice job with this story! It was cool how you added some historical tidbits into your writing and I can tell that you're a really well developed writer. Your descriptions and narrations were very nicely done!
Thank you. I do like to use historical material, but also like to mix in things that are not historical. Not sure how that came about for me.
Now that I've read this one, I like the treasure chest story even better. I like the way the story alternates between Ruth and the box, before eventually getting them in one place, but keeping a sense of mystery about both. It does leave the reader wanting to learn more :)