This is a story that takes place in the same building. It isn’t a terribly ancient building, only about four hundred years old, but you should know that the story has several parts and a lot of years in between them. You know, sometimes it’s the place that counts, sometimes it's the people. Other times, it’s what the people do. Maybe less often it’s the ideas they had which are so important. You never know.
In the case of this building, it does have a name and became famous enough to merit being turned into a museum. A small, tight-fitting museum, but a museum nonetheless. Funny how that fame came rather late, and is mostly due to a novel. We’re not sure what kind of a reputation it had before the novel, but there must have been a few stories to tell.
The many years that have passed between the incidents or characters we’re interested in do not mean that the people who are part of the story have totally different ideas. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, we’re not really concerned about the ‘official’ story that was told in Pérez Lugín’s A casa da Troia. That’s all about the well-to-do, not-very-serious students at the University, the ones who went out at night, serenaded the lasses who’d captured their fancy, and didn’t have studying for a degree very high on their lists of things to do. The world was their oyster, as the old saying goes.
If you ask me, I say we need the ability to see the connections where nobody has looked before. Then we need to ask why nobody has looked, what has blinded the world to some people and things, and focused on others. We are doing a bit of detective work, some historical forensics, if you will.
No, that’s overdoing it. We’re just going to take a closer look at the museum that was once an upscale boarding house.
We should start when the house was built, in the late eighteenth century. It is set on narrow Troia Street, well-located, even though there isn’t much of a view from the entrance. Good access to everything - the market, good cafés, shops, bars, night spots. Maybe even a bookstore. Oh, and the University. The latter two might have been less interesting for the boarders. The house was their territory for about four decades and its good location kept it stocked with wealthy young men trying their best to learn something.
The thing is, though, it wasn’t just a place to hang hat and coat. The building was home to others who were living in it like ghosts, sans hat, sans tobacco, and definitely sans alcohol. The building was the residence of several women. Look closely, if you want to see them. They are more present than when they were alive, in a way. (The explanation for that is below.)
What possible conversation is there to be had around invisible little creatures who went about their business quietly, trying not to be noticed? You ask, but you shouldn't be asking questions like that, especially out loud and not to me. The little creatures knew how to think and do other things. They just didn’t waste their abilities on being loud and drunk.
Maybe little isn’t the right word.
These creatures, which we can call women, were busy. They spent some of their time serving the creatures called men, but then had hours to spend on what really mattered to them. They spun threads and yarns from fibers like linen and wool.,they worked the fibers into fabric and onto fabric. They wove their thoughts, the ones not wasted on drunken, dumb stupors, using the fibers and their surfaces.
Then they hid these documents in plain sight, knowing nobody would see them or care. Their work was like a foreign language to the boys who were students of law and medicine. Less comprehensible than the Latin they needed for their careers. The women creatures, while they were still girls, knew the value of knowledge and its preservation. It’s as if every female were born a librarian or archivist.
A beautiful thought, don’t you think?
So what did they record and what did it look like? Note that the boys who were out gallivanting were experts in excesses. The girls never learn the definition of excess, but they do know what to do with losses. So often the losses they have suffered have led people, including women, to write. Letters, journals, a tragic greeting card purchased too late to reach its intended recipient. Trunks and boxes full of these things. Ephemera, some people call them. But they're not. Ephemeral. They're not.
The means of documenting what is gone from your life never to return can and did take many forms. Multiple media could be used. Women were especially creative with using what they had. Make do, their mothers and grandmothers would tell them, so they did.
After all, if you don’t have a steady income, or any income at all, what else can you do?
Just for the record, emotions were allowed, but the greatest weight was often borne by the paper that held them. When public, the emotions could be flaunted as a novel or short story, a poem. Pure invention, that is. Made up. Visible, however, if you knew how to read. Much less visible were the emotions when the words had simply been jotted down and shoved into a drawer. By the same women who had written them.
I can read. I learned fast. It helped me forget when I could get inside two covers and pull the pages up over me.
How to survive grief (often the result of loss) is slightly different than just hiding inside a book, because it is an emotion that tears and gouges the fibers of the grieving ones. How to be done with it?, you ask. This is my response:
Let it kill you once, almost, then scrape and claw your way back, nails sharpened by the rocks that held you and kept you from falling. Nails like quill pens, bloodied hands like small bottles of ink. Do this until the next step becomes obvious, because you are determined to survive this.
My hands hurt. My arms hurt.
Grow taut, like iron. It is all right to first feel tethered, tied by heavy leather thongs. The leather prepares you for the metal that will come.
I can do this, I can do this, comes a distant voice from somewheat in East Oblivion. I know that's where it came from.
Go through another grief, but not one of your choosing. It must not be your choice, so it will hit you harder. My baby brother is gone. My mother will go soon. Endure. The bindings are iron now.
There are two sets.
Quickly bind the second to the first, make a column that is strong but remembers. You are not allowed to forget; to forgive, true, but it is inadmissible to forget.
Oh, I can never forget. They will have to do that for me, lose all memory of who I am, because I am unable to forget.
This setting, in this building, is why Néveda and Lavinia met. Both young women had their stories and know how to weave them together. They are weavers of their own lives, if you will, but the weaving across the edges, the binding, that takes more preparation. Fortunately, Néveda and Lavinia are both women who know the material writing needs, and they know what they must do.
Words weave, readings are made. All very academic-sounding, but not enough. Now we have the correct focus, and can actually get to the story.
The Story As I Know It
Néveda had been born in the house that now known as the Casa da Troia. She had been very young when she found out about the big school called the University. They laughed when she said she wanted to see it. After all, it was all of two narrow streets away, and girls didn’t go there. But why don't they? There's nothing wrong with our bodies or our brains, is there?
Néveda didn’t know why that was so. Still, she read a lot and learned all the things a wife needed to know to impress society. But Néveda was the daughter of the maid and in time took her mother’s place, even though the agreement was never formalized.
Néveda still dreamed about setting foot on the sacred ground of the University, but when she left the house where she was born and now worked, it was to turn in the direction of San Miguel dos Agros, a homely little chapel of a church, with a beautiful name. If she had a few coins to her name, she bought books, and chose them well. She was able to purchase thread and material for sewing out of the budget allotted her. It was a treasure she never revealed.
Néveda read and sewed, sewed and read, and cleaned. Then she began to get ideas about things and people and she heard about the amazing Bayeux Tapestry. She wanted to record what she knew in a similar way. She told all about what she was reading, which was printed in at least three languages - Latin, French, Spanish, and she had her own language, the fourth.
What Néveda created was a finely-detailed, accurate piece of fabric with human figures (both male and female, none of them drunk), in scenes from the surrounding streets as were visible from the back attic window, Sometimes the sounds of livestock at the market and the smell of fresh fish or bread appeared in what Néveda was making. She had no name for it, because it was of a genre unto itself, and so she kept extending it as more knowledge and hopes came to her. As she added on to the portrayal of her world, as it grew, she began to roll it up, like a scroll. That was the safest way, the most compact way, to keep the work from prying or laughing eyes.
A rolled-up scroll doesn't look like much to most people.
Néveda wasn't the first girl to weave her tapestry and roll it up for safekeeping, and she wasn't the last. The first, from the second half of the eighteenth century, had been Filomena. She knew enough to sign her name, some numbers. She was also probably Néveda's mother or grandmother.
By the time Néveda's daughter took over, the nineteenth century was looking to close. Her position as the quiet spinner was well-established, and she was a credit to her beautiful name, Albina. Fortunately, more books were making their way into the Casa da Troia, because the student boarders bought them, brought them in, and left them since they were too heavy to carry.
One of the books impressed Albina because it was a history of art and in it was a description, maybe a few furry photographs, of the Tapestry of Bayeux from around 1080. Apparently the tapestry told the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and some high-ranking person had ordered the victory of the Normans to be documented. Albina realized that what Néveda, Filomena, and now she, Albina, were doing, was the same thing. They were recording history as they knew it.
It just wasn't as famous as what had been created in Bayeux. Still, Albina thought: Ours is just as good, in its own way, I think. She hadn't missed the fact that the scrolls that preceded her own had borne signatures. A fiandeira. Why did they sign this way? It's not a name.
A Fiandeira. Fiandeiriña as the diminutive, the more intimate version. Albina wasn't thinking of this as she decided to sign her contribution to the secret library with her own signature. A Fiandeira das Fiandeiras. She had tied herself to the work that had gone before, with a sense of honor.
Those signatures may be how the term fiandeira came to be a synonym for Library, particularly a very protected, renovated, and important library. That wouldn't happen until Lavinia came along, breaking the pattern of in-house creation of scrolls. It wouldn't happen for a while.
Lavinia came with her education as well, but she had never been 'cloistered', so to speak. She had never had to imagine the university but had attended it. Now she was teaching in it. Times had changed, but Lavinia didn't let that get in the way of her spotting the scrolls in the Casa da Troia museum. What is this about fiandeiras? She asked, when given permission to open the four scrolls once she had shown her researcher's credentials to the guide. Lavinia at first thought about the image of the moura fiando that she had learned about since coming to do research for her sabbatical.
Mouras are supposedly found by sources of water, as Lavinia knew. They are often though to be near sources of gold as well. They do not live in houses built in the eighteenth century. She knew that the Casa da Troia, from 1880 until 1920, had been a boardinghouse. The unshown collage of student life, open only to males, showed androgynous figures. One of the fiandeiras had woven women into the world of education.
Maybe the most recent spinner, Albina, had learned about Concepción Arenal, who had dressed as male? When had that been? Lavinia checked her phone: Arenal had wanted to be a lawyer since she was a girl (she was born in 1820). At twenty-one, she wanted to audit classes in Law in the Facultad de Derecho of the Universidad Central in Madrid. Lavinia's interest in cross-dressing had led her to Arenal earlier, so she knew the woman had also cut her hair and donned men's clothing. She was discovered, and the rector authorized her to attend classes. A true miracle for the time.
Arenal was Galician. She published many articles and books, but one important title was La mujer del porvenir, in 1869. The Woman of the Future. That had a nice ring to it. So did the articles based on talks given in Madrid, on the education of women. Did any of the tapestry-makers know this? Arenal didn't stop cross-dressing when she finished her studies, because she attended political and literary gatherings dressed as a man. She wrote for a magazine. She must have made a lot of eyebrows raise.
Back from her thoughts, Lavinia considered the scrolls in front of her on a table where they had been placed for her to inspect them. Her hands were trembling with every centimeter she unrolled. Here she was, two and a half centuries later, poring over at works of art that nobody in the house had bothered with.
Then she realized.
How blind could I be?
For she recognizes that this ties in with the library for women that people had been alluding to here and there around town. The use of fiandeira in the plural reminded her of the classical painting by Velázquez, where the mythical women are posed in the foreground for some reason. Hmmm... spinners... the Fates...
Lavinia then thought of how mostly the moura or spinner is seen as an individual, alone, engaged in some mindless pursuit, killed into art as one critic has termed it. A poem by Uxío Novoneyra came to mind, because someone had thought she needed to know who the poet was and had given her a copy of Os Eidos:
que fías detralo lume
cos ollos postos nas chamas
roxiñas brancas i azules
Spinner in love, spinning behind the flame, eyes bent on watching the purple, white, and blue dance.
Fiandeiriña que fías
nas noites do longo inverno
as liñas máis delgadiñas
que o fío do pensamento.
Spinner working to spin the finest threads during the long winter, thinner than thought.
Cai a neve branca fora
riba dos teitos calada
mentras ti fías e soñas
nunha cousiña lonxana…
The white snow falls outside on the whitening roof, while you spin and dream of distant things...
sempre metida a fiar
sempre a fiar e soñar
para logo non ser nada.
Slender spinner, all you do is spin, spin and dream, but afterward you are nothing.
—Para logo non ser nada
eso inda está por ver
e pois cas frebas do liño
ó torcelas de camiño
algo se ha de prender.
Afterward you are nothing - that has yet to be seen because with the fragments of flax twisted along the way, something must be learned.
—Algo se ha de prender
i afé que tiñas razón
que eu estábache mirando
sin deñar que encantenón
íbame indo namorando.
Something has to be learned, and you are right because I was there watching you and falling in love.
Lavinia hadn't been able to tie everything together yet, but she was going to try. She felt she owed it to Albina, Filomena, and Néveda, whose names she didn't know yet but promised herself she would.
They had been there all this time, working for an eternity, and doing things of incredible importance. Perhaps Novoneyra had placed the moura of his native Courel as his personal love object. That was within his right, but when he called her a spinner, he probably hadn't realized that she was one of many fiandeiras.
Fiandeiras who had another project other than to serve as maids or be loved with men.
That's what Lavinia thought, and she was right.