Remember me when I am gone away (or else!)
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
~ Christina Rosetti
Not a place on the map of most tourists, unless they’re the ones who make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Galicia sits in the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, north of Portugal, from which it’s separated by the Minho River. Even more so than the northwest corner of the U.S., Galicia has a climate with abundant rain. As a result, it is lushly green and seems not to have allowed visitors to change its culture, but rather absorbs them and teaches them the meaning of collective consciousness, historical memory, and other such anthropological constructs. All very anthropological, if one thinks about it.
Lavinia Rivers knew this to be true, not because she was an anthropologist, but because she was a researcher and, admittedly, an intellectual, although she would have been horrified if anybody had called her that to her face. She taught library science and gender studies at a state university and was recognized as a knowledgeable archivist by virtue of her numerous publications. She was also a loner, which along with her scholarly success, had won her some serious enemies. She thought of herself as a researcher and cataloguer, a reader of essays, and analyst of historical documents. She rarely, if ever read fiction and had not done well in creative writing. She preferred to focus her careful eye on gender relationships as evidenced through artifacts. She preferred the lives of others to her own and worked hard not to embellish any findings with personal responses.
Dr. Rivers was on sabbatical in Santiago de Compostela. She had also gotten a grant to study the photography and travels of an American woman who had come to Galicia in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a young female pioneer with a photographic eye, a good hand with a camera, and a penchant for travel. Completely forgotten in her own country.
It was only by accident that the future Dr. Rivers, not by any means a reader of literature, had been shown a poem written by Rosalía de Castro. Rosalía, as the Galicians often called her because they were on a first name basis with her, was the mother of the Galician Rexurdimento or Renaissance, in the nineteenth century. Lavinia had been shown the poem on her first visit to Santiago, years ago. She had traveled there as a student and had been naïve as well as interested mostly in doing student things, but nevertheless she had read and reread the poem until sometimes she thought she herself was the author. The reason was unclear.
The poem was titled “Santa Escolástica.” It was about a young woman who walked quickly, excitedly, through a Compostela that still had no modern expansion, a Compostela with its old stones and over-sized cathedral that housed the remains of Santiago, Saint James. Lavinia thought it odd to write such a long poem, in which the wandering of the speaker ended up at the statue of a saint, because there seemed to be little religious devotion on her part. What had driven the woman of the poem through the streets, and why make her objective a saint from somewhere else?
That was the moment when the gender aspect became clear: Escolástica, or Scholastica in English, was the woman in the poem’s answer to the Santiago visited by all the rest of the pilgrims from far and wide, Saint James the Moorslayer, the patron saint of Spain. Then Lavinia, despite her poor knowledge of religious tradition, knew the poem was more than just lyrical creation. She realized she might well benefit from paying a visit to Escolástica in the church of San Francisco. She also knew she had to retrace the steps of the woman who wandered through the city in the poem by Rosalía. The author called Santiago de Compostela “cemetery of the living,” and wandered until she reached the statue of Santa Escolástica in San Francisco cathedral. After that she declared Art to be the true deity. All very nineteenth century, but charming and intriguing, nevertheless.
Alone, Lavinia paid the small entry fee and went to sit facing the saint, who was clothed in black and flanked by cherubs and somewhat grimy clouds. Not religious, the academic hadn’t come to pray but instead had been drawn by the name of the saint. She felt foolish sitting, almost in parody of the devout who worship statues and believe in the power of faith.
Almost no one else was in the huge cathedral, and nobody certainly was paying any attention to the Santa Escolástica created by the sculptor Ferreiro Suárez in 1799. Then Lavinia heard a wisp of a voice. Not weak, just extremely still and tenuous.
“I know you’re here because I’m the creation of a poet a century and a half ago. I am just a writer’s invention, true, and may even have been the invention before that by Saint Gregory centuries ago. That’s not of much concern to me, Dr. Rivers. In your life, which looks pretty much like a novel from where I sit, I am real and I can prove it in more than one way.”
Lavinia tried to see the lips of the calm face moving, but detected nothing. She had merely come to see what the saint looked like, although to be honest, most of the Catholic images resembled each other to her.
Santa Escolástica was talking again.
“I am the creation of faith and art, my life and works are a fiction, the product of human imagination. Actually, that’s all right, because I was invented by the Church, fashioned by Ferreiro, and named by a writer. They assembled me and now I have my own altar, my own existence.”
Lavinia understood she was in the process of being linked to the holy woman, founder of the Benedictine Order of nuns. The nun was an invention, yet she had a life that had survived the passage of centuries. “What do you want of me?” she inquired of the woman in black, whose face never lost its expression of repose.
It was difficult to know which of the two women had posed the question, and perhaps both had. Lavinia was concerned that the poem had the potential to become an obsession - after all, she had been reading it over and over, maybe once a week, since it was first mentioned to her. Was she in turn creating her own Santa Escolástica as she walked the streets of Compostela more than she needed to, unable to stop? After all, she’d come on sabbatical, with the grant to research the legacy of a photographer from the period prior to the Spanish Civil War. Saints weren’t part of her research as an archivist and professor of gender studies. The obsession was not the way a professional thinks.
Or was it?
Santa Escolástica was speaking again.
“You’re doing your research and you think I’m a minor character, or that I don’t belong in your work at all. You’re mistaken. You need to write me into your story, bring me into the city like I deserve.I’ve been around since the fifth century and it’s time. ”
“But how can I do that? And why should I?” asked Dr. Rivers, looking slightly perturbed. Sana Escolástica indicated that she’d been in Santiago long before her unbelieving spectator had arrived, and also wasn’t the only Escolástica in the city.
“You like to walk so much, you want to understand this city? Well, you need to go everywhere, look at everything. I don’t think you’ve gone to the religious museum in San Paio convent yet, have you? It’s only a few steps away.”
Lavinia admitted she hadn’t.
“You will go and find the others like me, images invented by artists even before I came to be placed in this simple, dull chapel with columns painted to look like marble. The idea is to find out why, why we, have been forgotten and to tell our story. After all, I am the patroness of education, but perhaps women’s education has been less essential. Has anything changed over the centuries?”
Lavinia wasn’t convinced that the story of nuns, even if they had been awarded sainthood by the Church, was all that compelling, but she said nothing. Rosalía de Castro had singled her out, nevertheless. If nothing else, the researcher could go to San Paio and look at a few statues, paintings, silver chalices, and other religious items. She was willing to keep an open mind.
The museum at San Paio also had a modest entry fee. It was small and intimate, despite the size of the convent where maybe a dozen nuns rattled around inside. Ticket in hand, Lavinia stepped down into the silence that was a silvery echo of absent lives. It was as if nothing had ever breathed there, yet immediately she could see that someone had entrusted numerous documents of enormous historical value to the space. The centuries peeled away as the visitor paused in front of each glass case. The history of the cathedral, the previous monastery, the founding of Compostela, the huge convent, the endless lists of lands, wealth, nobles, religious elite, were all on display. The ink was dark, the writing legible, and it was often in Galician, not Spanish.
Santa Escolástica, the one in San Paio’s museum, was quite different from her namesake in San Francisco. First of all, she was a painting, flat instead of three-dimensional. She was also situated so the visitor could get a lot closer. At first Lavinia wasn’t sure she liked her, but then she saw the book in her hand, the symbol of the saint, and wondered if she’d really been that educated, beyond knowing a lot of scriptures from the Bible and a lot of prayers? Santa Escolástica was supposedly the patroness of education, she had to remind herself, if you could call theology education. A second Escolástica on the same wall was nearly her twin, although she stared more fixedly at Lavinia.
The visit lasted barely an hour, so small was the museum and so dim the lighting. Even including Lavinia’s cordial but guarded conversation with the nun at the entry desk.
Lavinia emerged from San Paio’s corner where the entry to the museum was located and was crossing the famous square known as the Quintana dos Mortos when the sky opened up and the wrath, or tears, or sweat, of a hundred gray, grimy clouds fell onto the granite slabs, worn and moulded by millions of feet. The drops grew into bullets that hit and ricocheted. People hurried to take shelter beneath the stone arches of the House of Andrade to the left of the convent.
Lavinia, however, did not hurry. She had opened her umbrella within seconds, still thinking about how Santa Escolástica #1 had sent her to Santa Escolástica #2 (and #3). She hadn’t learned much from numbers 2 and 3, except to note that the book was in the hand of the painted ladies. Suddenly she recalled that the legend of Escolástica, supposedly sister and maybe twin of Saint Benito of Nursia, had begged her brother to remain with her. Her brother had refused because he’d made a promise never to sleep outside of his own order’s place of residence. The original Santa Escolástica had evoked the rage of the heavens. They opened up and the downpour had been so drenching that travel was impossible. Saint Benito was forced to stay and talk with his sister, who passed away soon after, following a long theological discussion between the brother and sister.
“So?” said Lavinia to the wall of rain crashing around her, isolating her from the rest of the world as if she too were in a cloister.
“So?” she heard someone say. “So I am now a part of your story and you will make my character worthy of greater recognition. You will write me well, or you will learn more about me than you ever wanted to know. Remember, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”