... from The Songs of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth
Who will plough my vulva?
Who will plough my high field?
Who will plough my wet ground?
I woke badly. I had dreamt of the old woman and was still troubled by
her odd message. I showered and tried to put it behind me, but it clung
like a hangover. In my cloudy morning head her words mixed themselves
with Eric's fanciful theories of conspiracy and my father's involvement
with what? MI5, ASIO, CIA? It was crazy. I didn't know why I had let Eric
lead me along. Not everything in life is explained away in grand epics,
there are so often simpler, more human size explanations to be found.
My father was a quiet scholarly sort of man, a man more at home with his
ancient atlases than with any international intrigue.
I had a long drive ahead of me that morning and I didn't want to dwell
any further on the old woman, or Eric's ideas, so I collected a pile of
cassettes and tossed them into the car. I'd fill my head with the clear
but ornately worked lines of Purcell and maybe a little Hildegard of Bingen.
I drove out to the country, to a landscape on the edge of the Mallee
where my department was having an organisational retreat. It was out of
the teaching term and they had taken over part of our rural campus. I
didn't mind the drive, it was a warm day and I liked the chance to have
a little time to myself, but there was a time, not so long ago, when such
retreats would have been held in a city four star hotel.
I arrived quite late and was shown to my room. Like a school camp, the
women had been separated from the men and we occupied two separate dormitory
buildings. The passage in the women's quarters was lit only with a dim
night light and I couldn't see anyone else about. I unpacked the few things
I'd brought and just as I was settling down with my book, I heard a gentle
knock at the door.
Crete was standing in the hallway, glass in hand and dripping wet. Her
shirt and skirt clung to her skin and her hair hung around her face in
wet ringlets. She spoke in a whisper. "I've been for a swim."
"In your clothes?"
"Want a drink?"
I went with her. The pool was about a five-minute walk from the dormitory
block. There was no one about and it felt refreshing and surprisingly
safe to walk in the dark amongst both the buildings and the trees. The
night silence of the country always excites me perhaps because, paradoxically,
it is filled with sounds I hardly ever hear.
The pool was floodlit with yellow lights, and a large wattle tree, in
the shadows of this awkward light, looked as if its tresses were long
dreadlocks. Just like an old woman, it seemed to keep watch over the water,
over the pool.
Crete led the way to the shallow end. Neither of us were good swimmers.
I knelt down and tested the temperature of the water; it was warm, much
warmer than the night, much warmer than I had expected.
We undressed, this time completely, and slipped into the water without
making too much of a sound, without disturbing the surface of the water
or the stillness of the night.
The Sixth Mandala - Knowledge
I am not a good swimmer.
I swam a kind of breaststroke, keeping my head above the water and
making no waves or sound. I was careful not to splash, not to break
I enjoyed the way it moved in a rhythmic flow over the curves of
my body. I felt its movement over my rounded stomach; it curved around
my breasts and my buttock. I could feel it under my armpits, and as
I moved my arms, a small current flowed between my legs.
Floating like this I felt as if the water was caressing me, massaging
and exploring the flow and shape of me. Tiny air bubbles captured
in my pubic hairs caught the yellow light. They glistened and jewelled
my vulva. I rolled onto my back and exposed my pubic hair, my jewelled
vulva, to the stars.
There were, of course, stars, ripping my breath away with their
ordinary magnitude, their nightly excesses.
There was something about that night, the sensuousness of the water
on my naked body, the excess of stars in the sky and the stillness
of the night which made me stay in the water long after Crete had
returned to the dormitory. Normally I would have been too timid to
stay there alone but on this occasion I felt godlike, as if all of
my life had come together in this place, on this night. The water
rippled against me, I moved in it, making slight deep watery sounds,
and I delighted in the way droplets glistened on my skin or took colour
in the yellow floodlights.
Alone I indulged myself in my own me, in the completeness
of me, in all the parts of me, the shadow and the light, the curves
and the crevices, the longitude and latitude of me. Confident of my
womanhood, like Inanna, I too, took the me.
I took the me of truth; the me of forthright speech; the me of slanderous
speech; the me of deceit; the me of kindness; the me of lamentations;
the me of attention; the me of dismay; the me of counselling; the
me of judgements; the me of decisions; the me of fear; the me of consternation;
the me of perceptions; the me of purification.
I took the me of the builder; the me of the scribe, the me of the
potter; the me of the weaver; the me of the healer; the me of the
sculptor; the me of the painter; the me of the dreamer.
I took the me of travel; the me of adventure; the me of chance;
the me of risk; the me of danger; the me of returning; the me of the
fenced garden; the me of the hearth; the me of the kitchen; the me
of the herbs; the me of the spices; the me of the clean folded sheets;
the me of rebellion; the me of treachery; the me of power; the me
of the hero; the me of the heart; the me of memory; the me of rejoicing.
I took the me of clothing; the me of jewellery; the me of perfume;
the me of coiffure; the me of decoration, the me of colour; the me
of lace; the me of satin; the me of leather; the me of corsets; the
me of nakedness.
I took the me of lovemaking, the me of wetness; the me of the lips,
the me of the tongue; the me of the kissing of the phallus; the me
of cooing; the me of the wife; the me of the virgin; the me of the
whore; the me of the mother; the me of the daughter; the me of the
concubine; the me of the priestess; the me of the sister; the me of
the stripper; the me of the wise; the me of the hetaera, the me of
I took the me of song; the me of drums; the me of the fiddle; the
me of the dance; the me of the tambourine; the me of the fire. I took
the me of the sound of wind over stones. I took it all.
I was so lost in my own private experience I was not alarmed but
amazed when I saw a man standing by the gate of the pool, he'd ridden
up silently on a push bike that was beside him.
"You look like a mother seal in there," he said, and we
both knew I was completely naked.
I'm not sure, perhaps it was the way he seemed at ease and unfussed
by my nakedness, but for whatever reason his presence didn't alarm
me. Perhaps it was the night itself, the whole experience of the swim
and the environment; he simply seemed just another part of it. There
was something unreal about him as if I had conjured him up out of
the sensuousness of the water, and I knew I did not need to fear him.
Without any further talk he came to the edge of the pool and held
out my towel. I swam towards him and as if I was that mother seal,
the goddess of the water, I slowly raised myself out of the pool and
stood, my white body, full and curved and fecund, glistening yellow
in the lights. He handed me my towel and I took my time to dry myself.
Why was I not ill at ease? Why didn't I grab the towel and wrap
it around me like some timid wet mouse? Why didn't I rush toward the
As I dressed, I looked at him. He was in his forties and he looked,
he walked, he talked like a farmer. "Are you from around here?"
"No. From further out, from the Mallee."
We began to talk about the sky and the land.
Walking his pushbike he joined me as I made my way back towards
As we got closer to the building I realised I didn't want to leave
his company. He offered to show me the stump jump plough, the machinery
that had tamed the land. I'd never seen one. It had originally come,
he told me, from around this place.
"There's some in the sheds."
I nodded and we took a path away from the dormitories.
As we walked he became animated with the details of the plough,
its mechanics and history and importance for agriculture. At the first
fence he left his bicycle against a tree and helped me over the barbed
We crossed over paddocks and made our way towards a group of sheds.
We passed some small silos and a place where grain is mixed and bagged.
The moon was still low on the horizon. There wasn't much light but
he knew his way. He guided me along dark paths and to places where
he knew the fences were low, where it was easy to climb over them.
He talked to me about the land, about it forming the lines on his
hand, about it being in his family, about the Mallee country, the
stars out there and the horizon. He talked to me of the sound of the
wind over rocks, the sound like the didgeridoo, of the comfort of
rain, the seeding and the green shoots coming through the dust, changing
the colour of the earth. He told me of clouds and formations and wind
movements. He told me of fencing and burning the mallee stumps in
the winter. He told me of the parrots, the birds, and the summer sky,
how there was always so much sky, so much blue. He told me of the
clouds - like pencils, a scatter of pencils. And then he showed me
the machinery that had conquered all this, he showed me the plough,
the stump jump plough.
He was strong too, stronger than I thought, for he wasn't a large
man. He pushed up against the taut springs of the plough to show me
the mechanism, the way the blade retreated from the earth when it
came across a buried stump. I tried to push the blade back but it
wouldn't budge, I didn't have the strength of the land.
He was pleased with himself; pleased I wanted to know his knowledge
of the Mallee; pleased at his strength; pleased at how I responded
to him; and like a child showing off a trick, he pushed the blades
back a second time. I touched his arm; it felt brown with the sun.
I put pressure on my fingers and ran them up against his skin, pushing
against the hairs on his arm. He released the blade but I did not
take my hand away. He put his arm around me and without talking, he
took me to a part of the shed where he knew there would be bags of
I liked the feel of his arm around me, it felt safe and there was
a security in this embrace. In amongst the smell of bags and seeds,
chaff and earth, machine oil and fodder, I tasted him: his mouth,
his tongue, his neck, his shoulders, his nipples. I traced the line
of his rib cage and let my tongue fill the crevice of his navel. And
then without any more tease I buried my face in his pubic hairs and
sucked and licked his hard penis. He ran his hands under my armpits
and guided my face up to his. Manoeuvring his body, he pushed into
I watched his face as he made love to me. I wanted to see him; I
wanted to see him come. In that nighttime light I could see his face
muscles tensing, changing. I could see how defenceless he was. And
I could see something else - the inner essence of the man, the landscape
stamping the map of the Mallee on his dreaming.
I understood it was not my dreaming.
It was late when I returned to the dormitories and I found Crete asleep
on my bed. She woke as I came into the room. She'd been crying. I put
my arms around her. I smelt of sex and she of sleep and tears.
She went with me to the showers, we didn't bother to turn on the lights,
there was enough of a glow coming through the windows for me to wash myself.
She sat on the side of the bath and talked while I washed away the smell
of the land, the smell of the farmer.
I washed the shampoo out of my hair and turned off the taps. I had enjoyed
the hot steam of the shower, the pressure of the jet against my back and
shoulders. For the second time that night I was handed a towel. I dried
myself and put on a robe.
In my room I pampered myself and rubbed body oils onto my legs and thighs
and belly and buttocks. Crete rubbed it into my shoulders and back while
I smoothed the slightly perfumed oil onto my breasts and ran it down between
my legs. I rubbed it into my arms, my hands and then up around my neck.
I could feel my muscles relax and I enjoyed the slight scent of cinnamon,
and, was it roses?
I told Crete of the farmer and then I asked her. "You've been crying?"
She nodded. "I've been trying to work out why I'm so scared. It's
not easy to face." Crete said, "Gabbett wants to move in next
My eyes darted quickly to hers. Perhaps I had misheard her. "Did
you say next week?"
"Christ, Crete, that's a bit quick. You hardly know him."
"Hardly know him?" she repeated. "Meridian, it's as if
I've never known anyone else in my entire life."
"Why not a flat or something, give yourselves a bit of space?"
And then I added, "I guess you've thought about that."
"Sure. What's the point? We're both close to fifty. Why should
we muck about with flats?"
I agreed, there wasn't much point in being careful or coy. I offered
her the oil and she began to rub it into her legs. "Why are you frightened?"
"That's what I've been trying to work out. It doesn't seem to have
much to do with Gabbett. It's me. I haven't lived with anyone for four
years. I think I've grown to like the solitude, the control over my own
time and space."
I knew what she was talking about. There were days when I paced about
my house crying with loneliness and self-pity. But they were few. For
the rest, I enjoyed the total control over my own world. I enjoyed sleeping
and eating and cooking and cleaning, and just living at my own pace, my
own way. If I wanted to open a bottle of wine at three in the morning,
or suddenly roast myself some potatoes, there was nobody to complain.
If I wanted to leave the dishes, have bakebeans on toast for dinner, sit
around in a tracksuit for half the day forgetting even the morning shower,
there was no one to complain. Friends and lovers were just a phone call
But there was a down side of course. Those nights of loneliness, eating
alone in a restaurant, having good, no, great news, and no one to tell
it to. That was Crete's paradox, the one we all face. How do we balance
and weigh loneliness against companionship, independence against intrusion?
The price for having your own time is loneliness; the price for companionship
is no autonomy. What do women like Crete and me want? Which way do we
Crete spoke softly in a night voice. "I think I have to trust.
Hold my breath, trust in him."
Him, it would have been safer for her to place her trust in herself,
but I said nothing, I didn't know how to tell her that.
Crete added, "Let's leave as soon as we can in the morning, I don't
think I could stand any departmental politics? Not now."
"Sure, glad to." We were both tired. We embraced and she left
for her own bed.
I fell asleep listening to a single woman's voice singing Hildegard's
chants. Her voice reverberated through the cloisters of history, through
the pages of a manuscript.
Professor Andersen gave me lunch at his club and talked enthusiastically
about currents and ocean movements around Greenland, Iceland and the Americas.
By the time I left him my head ached and I knew nothing more of my father's
history than before I had arrived. The ocean currents were of no interest
to me and Eric's ideas about my father's espionage activities seemed even
more preposterous than before. I dismissed that line of attack. I knew
my father, or at least I thought I did, and I couldn't see him embroiled
in some kind of international conspiracy where the Vinland Map was used
to help jolt Italian-American ethnic pride. It was all too far fetched.
I took myself for a coffee and quietly thought about the whole mosaic
of experiences. On the one hand there was the business of the map and
my father, the two seemed linked in some way and as a consequence somehow
linked to my own life and my own personal history. On the other hand,
my personal life seemed to be taking peculiar twists and turns. There
was the old woman in the purple hat who kept appearing in my dreams. She
was haunting me. It was something about the way I could never talk to
her, as if, like the old women of the tribe, she had given up the need
for ordinary communication, for the sounds of simple or complex words.
She sat and chanted. She spoke in riddles. She knew the songs. She watched.
Watched over, perhaps? She troubled my sleep and I'd wake with an odd
unease, like the after taste of a lover you wished you hadn't spent the
I looked into the dark well of the coffee. The old woman wasn't the
only thing troubling me. There was the way I felt embroiled in Crete's
love affair with Gabbett, she kept coming to me with more and more of
the complications. I felt overloaded. And there was the incident in the
swimming pool with the man from the Mallee and the way Crete and I suddenly
left the departmental retreat.
Our head of department was not impressed when we just drove away from
his over organised colloquium. Crete had mentioned something about a visiting
scholar, but he glared at me. Crete had a reputation for such scattiness
but I didn't, and while it might just have been possible Crete did have
some international scholar about to visit her, he knew such academics
did not visit me. I knew I'd get the brunt of his annoyance somewhere
down the track: draw the short straw on a tutorial timetable; walk into
a class and find it oversized; be handed a difficult postgraduate to supervise.
There'd be some pay-off, I was sure of that.
What I wasn't expecting was the summons to his office. It was an embarrassing
moment. He was trying to be fatherly. We were both awkward. I told him
I was distracted by a new research project. I'm not sure why, but I told
him of my growing interest in the Vinland Map. Perhaps it was the only
thing I could think to say, or perhaps, cornered like that, I could admit
my growing curiosity in the map.
What I was interested in, I told him, was in researching and studying
the map as if it was genuine. I wanted to find a way of claiming
it for cartography. There had been several efforts to prove the map was
a forgery but each of these efforts had left uneasy questions. I convinced
myself, if not my head of department, a much harder and much more rewarding
quest would be to show the map to be genuine, to be a medieval map of
the known world. The fact that the known world contained aspects of America
fifty or more years before Columbus discovered it was an issue I left
out of my discussions. Sensationalism was not the Head's style.
We parted amicably, with him offering some research assistant time for
my Vinland Map investigations. It was good of him but I didn't want the
intrusion. As I left his office I realised I had talked myself into a
fully blown project and he would, at some stage in the not too distant
future, be looking for results.
I instigated a library search on everything written about the map, it
was not, as it turned out, a great deal, and I tried to order the bits
I already knew of the story. Witten was dead and so too was Enrico Ferrajoli,
the only two men who claimed to know the location of the library where
the map and its accompanying text had sat for over 500 years. Neither
had revealed even the slightest hint of the identity of the collector
or the library.
Unlike my friend Eric, who created layers of fanciful solutions to solve
riddles, I preferred to cut to the quick of a problem. I began to play
a familiar game, the cartographer's "what if..."
What if Witten and Enrico didn't reveal the secret location of the library,
and the mysterious collector, because there wasn't one? If Witten hadn't
been taken to a library, if he had never met the noble collector, then
it would be easy to refuse steadfastly to reveal anything at all about
either the library or the collector. If he had gone to the library, if
it had existed, then over the years something or other would have slipped
out. He would have known about a text he shouldn't have, or he would have
compared an illumination to one he'd normally have no way of seeing. Somewhere
he would have slipped up because although Witten was not a major dealer
in manuscripts even he would not have been able to resist looking at some
of the other treasures in the mysterious library. He would have picked
up other volumes, looked in shelves and drawers, noticed something about
the decor, some painting, a sculpture, maybe a globe of the world. Some
small aspect would have caught his imagination and would have reappeared
innocently, troubling his silence. How could it not? But no such
error is recorded. Witten doggedly maintained his story and nothing ever
slipped to contradict his refusal to offer even the slightest hint as
to the identity of the collector or his library. There was no letter after
his death, no confidant who came forward. Just silence - a complete silence.
The more I thought about it the more I was convinced Witten had not
been taken to a library, nor had he met a mysterious collector.
If the collector and library did not exist then Enrico must have shown
the manuscript to Witten and suggested - what? That a great library existed
but he couldn't take Witten to it, for a number of reasons? That the manuscript
came from a great library behind the Iron Curtain? Or from the East? Or
was part of a Nazi official's booty? Witten might have believed any one
of those stories.
How was I casting Witten? The naive American abroad with too much money
in his accounts and too little caution or sense? It seemed a more feasible
explanation to that of the arch conspirator.
But Witten was the one who had the most to gain financially. This was
a snag and I needed to keep it in the back of my head. He had made a lot
of money by buying the map from Enrico for three and a half thousand and
selling it to Yale for two hundred thousand dollars. Was that enough of
a financial gain to act as a motive?
Then again, Witten could have been someone's agent, acting the part
of the innocent Yank abroad, but I just didn't think so. I'd leave such
theories for Eric to mull over.
So who was Witten? A small time dealer so interested in the manuscript
he knew the configuration of its wormholes off by heart? I've looked
at several manuscripts and I know that to be so committed to the wormholes
requires considerable dedication. Wormholes are not in themselves very
interesting things and I have found most other people distracted by the
text, the illumination, the ink pigmentation, or even the vellum. Rarely,
I must say, have wormholes so fascinated even the most pedant of scholars
that they would know their configuration and recognise them in another
text. And yet Witten recognised the configuration in the fragment of the
Speculum. How remarkable.
The wormhole story was unbelievable, as was the co-incidence of the
fragment of the Speculum turning up at Yale. That much had to be
a set up. The only question was by whom? Was Witten involved from the
beginning or was his main role the miraculous recognition of the wormholes?
And, perhaps, did he also have to prod Marston into purchasing the fragment
from Davis' international catalogue? I thought about this for a time but
decided there were too many moving parts, too many people involved for
Witten to be a main player in anything but the recognition of the wormholes.
I smiled to myself; perhaps Eric wasn't so far off the track. Not concerning
my father, but there might have been some sophisticated help in getting
the Speculum to Yale. The fragment of the Speculum, after
all, went from Enrico to Davis, to the international catalogue, to Marston
at Yale. It's a long journey and would take more organisation than could
be mustered by such small players as Enrico or Witten.
I turned my attention to Enrico. Where did he get the manuscript from?
If I dismissed the story of a mysterious collector, a great family library,
tax evasion and the rest, the simplest explanation was that he, or someone
he knew, had stolen it. This fitted with what I knew about Enrico. He
was known to be a thief and a small time fence, who traded in manuscripts
and artefacts from antiquity for those who didn't want to inspect the
provenance or the receipts too carefully. But if it had been stolen, where
had he got it from?
The best lead in the story had to be the Spanish cathedral library.
Enrico was known to have stolen manuscripts from it, serving a prison
sentence for his trouble. The theft at the library and the appearance
of the map and the Tartar Relations amongst Enrico's wares, coincided
nicely. Could the Vinland Map have come from that library?
The list the library issued to the police of the stolen manuscripts
did not include the map, but they also refused to deny it had been in
their possession. Why? What was the point in neither affirming nor denying?
Could there be reasons why a library would want to keep secret the exact
nature of their collection? But surely in this day and age of electronic
catalogues the only secret collections are those acquired on the black
market, private collectors who store their booty in secret vaults. Somehow
this didn't seem to be the stuff of cathedral libraries. Is it possible
that they had the book and didn't even know it? Is it possible that aspects
of their collections are not catalogued?
I needed to know more about such libraries. I rang Martha at the rare
We met in town at the end of her working day. She took me to a cafe
not far from the library and ordered some red wine and a plate of antipasto.
While we waited for the wine and food, I drew the Vinland Map for her.
It was not hard to sketch its outline, and I told her of the Tartar
Relations and its account of Chingis Khan's empire.
What I liked most about Martha was her professionalism. She was less
interested in the drawing of the map than its specifications. It was the
same with her knowledge and selection of wines. Labels, names and prices
were of no consequence, she knew her wines, she knew exactly which bottle,
which year, which grape, and she wasn't put off lightly. I wanted to compliment
her but I knew better of it. She disliked me drawing attention to her
skills and was not a woman to take compliments easily.
I got right down to the details, I knew Martha would appreciate that.
"The map was drawn on two sheets of vellum which are now joined.
They measure almost 30 by 40 centimetres, a bit less than 30 and a bit
more than 40." I was embarrassed slightly that I didn't remember
the exact measurement. I redeemed myself as best I could. "Of course,
over time, the vellum pages might have lost a little around the outer
edges, or perhaps shrunk a fraction. It's hard to say, the vellum is not
in a good state of repair and there are wormholes."
"It is vellum, not parchment?"
"Yes, calf not sheep. And, with the Tartar Relations, looks
to have come from one lot, one parcheminerie, although you wouldn't call
it your finest quality."
"A functional text?" She suggested.
She asked about other markings.
"The back of the map is blank except for a Latin inscription which
translates as 'delineation of the first, second and third parts of the
I wrote it down for her on the back of a drink coaster: Delineatio
1e ps:2e ps.3e ps. specl'i-. "The handwriting and ink of this
inscription appears to be similar to that of the legends on the face of
the map. So it's fair to assume the inscription is part of the original
document." I went on to give Martha the full cartographic details.
The red wine arrived and was predictably excellent - full bodied and
tasting of late afternoon - but Martha seemed less pleased with it saying
to herself, "I still prefer the Coonawarra." She moved the olives
towards me. "Middle of the 13th century wasn't it? The Tartar
"And what's the inscription on Vinland? I take it there is one?"
"Yes, it records a visit to Vinland by Eric the Bishop of Greenland
in the last year of Pope Pascal, 1118." I smiled to myself at Martha's
briskness. She often made me feel as if I was being cross-examined. But
I'd become used to her matter-of-fact style and didn't mind. There were
others, I knew, who couldn't handle it and avoided her.
Martha continued. "So it was important for them to claim those
lands as Christian?"
"I think so. The question is when. This copy dates, well
most would agree, from the Council of Basel which began in 1431 and ended
abruptly in 1439. However, the Tartar Relations, as a text, was
already about 200 years old."
"But not unimportant. Not originally." She took a little of
her wine. "That's better," she looked at the label, "yes,
it really needs to breathe." She continued with our conversation.
"Two hundred years earlier the Tartars were a major threat to the
entire Christian world. The Tartar Relations would have been required
reading for any strategist and prince, papal or otherwise. It's just that
by the time the scribe copied the text, the one with the Vinland Map,
the whole threat was well and truly over." She paused, "Well,
at least it wasn't immediate. I think the West has always had the recurring
nightmare of the East invading it." She thought for a moment. "You
know, the fact that the manuscript was an historical one at the time it
was scribed might account for its disappearance. It was a curio, even
at the time it was drawn up."
We were getting close to the ground I wanted to cover. "It hadn't
surfaced for five hundred years. Where would a map, a volume like that,
She shrugged. "On a barrow somewhere! It's happened before."
I asked her directly. "Would a library like a cathedral library
not catalogue such a work?"
"More than likely I'm afraid. There's still a lot that remains
uncatalogued." She told me of several incidents where an ancient
cathedral or library had kept its precious manuscripts from the various,
and monotonously regular, waves of invasions and pillage by telling no
one of their existence. "If the conquering army didn't know about
the existence of a particular precious document they didn't go looking
for it. Secrecy was always the safest lock and key. And Meridian, looting
armies are not just a thing of the past. Some old libraries still use
secrecy as part of their security system."
She told me of other manuscript thought lost forever but eventually
retrieved or casually happened upon. "Because I work with antiquity
people think there is nothing new in the field. Nothing could be further
from the case. New material, volumes, fragments; whole collections are
turning up all the time. Where did that dealer come from?"
"Most of Europe. But there was the cathedral in Spain, the one
he was caught stealing manuscripts from. A cathedral in Saragossa. Do
you know it?"
"Sure," Martha replied with the utmost casualness, "Cathedral
de la Seo. I haven't been there though, but I have met one of the librarians."
"No. At a conference, years back. A very distinguished man. It
was quite a few years ago so I guess he's getting on. But, it's interesting,
I believe he's still about. Crete's man, the latest, have you met him?
I was excited by this turn of events and didn't want to be distracted
with Crete's lover. "Martha, what has Crete's men got to do with
"It's her new bloke, the one who makes films for SBS. I can't remember
his name. I can't keep up with her. Well that's how she met this one.
He was here making a documentary that had something to do with the librarian,
or the old cathedral library or something. Look, I'm sorry I don't know
the details. Ask Crete."
"The librarian is here?"
"Out in the sticks somewhere. He came to be with his family, something
like that. I remember his talk. He kept speaking in Latin and annoyed
most of the audience. You'd have loved him!"
Perhaps. I had only been to one seminar that had been largely conducted
in Latin and that too had annoyed most of the audience. I wondered how
Crete's lover Gabbett would have got on with such a classicist. But at
the moment archaic references didn't concern me greatly. I was more concerned
with the possibility of meeting the librarian. How could he be here? Was
this more of the long list of coincidences which surrounded the Vinland
Map? And there was something else which troubled me. When I thought back
I remembered Crete telling me of the old Spanish librarian but I hadn't
listened. I had been so preoccupied with avoiding the continual saga of
her love affair I had really ceased to hear what she was saying. What
else, I wondered had she told me over the last few weeks? What else had
Martha poured the last of the wine and we turned our attention to other
It took me several days before I could get onto Crete only to find out
Gabbett was in Sydney for the week. She gave me a phone number which connected
me directly to a studio. There was a long delay and eventually he came
to the phone, somewhat curious.
"Meridian? Is everything all right?" We hadn't met and my
called alarmed him.
I assured him Crete was fine. I found his immediate concern for her
touching and wondered if this time she might have actually found herself
a bloke worth keeping. I explained why I'd rung.
"How's your Latin?"
"Fine, how's yours?"
"Schoolboy but I passed the test. I mainly got by on my Italian.
You know he's a right bugger? There's a whole lot of stuff he won't talk
about - something about the secrecy of the library's collection. Says
he's taken a vow or something."
"I've been warned. What's his address?"
Gabbett went to his briefcase and found the details. He returned to
the phone. "He's a weird one. Named after a philosopher, Francisco
Suarez, so I'd brush up on Suarez as well, if I was you."
"My researcher." Then he explained as best he could. "He's
old, comes from another world. If you want him to talk he has to, well,
want to talk to you. Still, I think he's a bit starved of real conversation
out on the farm and is a bit sick and tired of stupid, nosey questions.
What he is hungry for is real conversation."
"In Latin I presume!"
He laughed, "Latin or possibly Hebrew. The bugger is probably proficient
in a fist full of languages. I'd watch his son though. That's who he lives
with. The son seems more concerned with account books than any other kind
of book. We had to pay a fee, not to the old bloke, but to the son."
He gave me the address and rang off. As I put the receiver down I realised
this was the first conversation I'd had with Gabbett. He came over as
a person much more likeable than I'd thought he would be. Crete had had
such a run of hopeless men in her life that I had just expected this one
to be the same. I rang her to report my conversation and to tell her what
an amicable man Gabbett appeared to be. She liked that. We all like our
lovers to be praised by our friends.
I made a loose arrangement to have them both over to dinner, and set
about arranging to meet Francisco Suarez.
He was in no hurry to see me and I had to wait a couple of weeks, by
which time I had eaten with Crete and Gabbett and heard even more stories
of the old man. I read up on Saragossa and the cathedral. I had even borrowed
a book of Suarez's philosophy but could make little of it. I needed a
simpler explanation, or more time. I put the tome down. It was not this
ancient philosopher I wanted to know about, but his namesake.
I was excited and I drove, nudging the speed limit, to a property his
son owned just outside of Chaffey. It was an area at the edge of the vineyard
country where most of the rural industry centred around the orange growers.
As I drove I felt toey, a little nervous, and I wondered if his English
was proficient. I wasn't looking forward to struggling with my virtually
non-existent Spanish or, for that matter, my poor French. I knew that
at least my Latin would be fine and to attune my ear I spoke Latin to
myself as I drove along.
I found their block without too much difficulty and pulled the car up
outside of a large modern farmhouse built in cream brick, and resembling,
although by no means imitating, a Mediterranean architecture. What the
house told me was that while there might have been a paucity of imagination,
there was certainly no shortage of money. Gabbett, it seemed, had been
right about the son's interests.
Without too much ceremony I was taken into a small library where a man
in his seventies slowly rose from his chair and greeted me in English.
His accent was a little heavy but his English was impeccable. I was left
feeling awkward and inept because I could not respond with a suitable
Spanish greeting. Instead I chose to greet him in Latin as one scholar
might greet another. It was the best I could do. He smiled and responded
The room was one I would come to know intimately. It was not a grand,
or wood-lined, or dimly lit library, nor was it like my father's study.
This was an airy open room with sunlight that poured in from two large
windows. The walls were lined with books and there was a writing bureau
and also a larger reading desk. The desk contained a lamp and a bowl of
roses that gently perfumed the room. Both the writing bureau and the reading
desk had papers strewn about on them, as if I had disturbed him at work
on some project. At the far end of the room was a small door. The smallness
of the door had a strange optical effect and made the library seem longer
than it actually was.
A cut crystal decanter and two small glasses had been placed on a small
table which separated two ornately upholstered armchairs. He gestured
towards one of the chairs and we sat down. He poured out two sherries
and let them sit on the table.
He continued in Latin; "So, are you interested in the Cathedral
de la Seo or perhaps the manuscripts, maybe the theft, maybe...,"
his eyes gave away his amusement, "it is the Vinland Map which
As he spoke I became aware of the aroma of the sherry. It was a drink
I had rarely taken and knew little about. The aroma was new to me. It
smelt of another world, of wood and olives and tiny streets. "Indeed,"
I answered, "many things interest me. But first, I'm curious Senor,
how did you come to be here?"
He flipped his hand as if to brush away a speck of dust, "It
is unimportant. My son, Eximius, migrated from Saragossa. Our family lived
there for many generations." He moved back to English. "It
is, I think you know, a proud city."
I followed his lead and spoke in English. I had prepared myself for
this interview and had read up on Saragossa and its role in the Civil
War. I suggested courteously, "Perhaps Saragossa is proud of its
"It depends upon one's politics." He knew what I was referring
to. "There are no tougher fighters in all of Spain than the Aragonese,
and no tougher fighters in all of Aragon than the citizens of Saragossa."
"And more recently?" I had read Saragossa was the nursery
"I was not in a position to take a public side. I did what I could.
We all did." He offered the glass of sherry. By this time its perfume
had filled the air between us. My attention was caught by the brownness
of his hand and when I took the glass from him, we both noticed the contrast
of my white skin against his olive colouring.
He continued. "But it is a long time ago. From the factories of
Saragossa the Anarchist rose up and challenged the Fascist. It's a well
He moved the conversation away from the Civil War. Perhaps, I thought,
his political alliances were elsewhere, or was he like my father - too
touched by that particular period of history to even mention it?
He continued. "The same city held out against Napoleon. Do you
know of the Maid of Saragossa, your English poet Byron talks of her bravery?"
And then, more with his eyes than with his mouth he smiled and added,
"Byron also talks of her womanness." He had not yet put his
glass to his mouth. I followed his lead but held the glass close to my
face so I could saturate my senses with its aroma. The lightly coloured
wine clung to the sides of the glass like an afterimage and my mouth was
salivating for the taste.
Still he did not drink. He quoted some lines from Childe Harold's
"Her lover sinks - she shed no ill-timed tear;
Her chief is slain - she fills his fatal post;
Her fellows flee - she checks their base career;
The Foe retires - she heads the sallying host:
Who can appease like her a lover's ghost?
Who can avenge so well a leader's fall?"
I completed the quotation, one of the very few lines of Byron I knew.
It was part of the warring rhetoric I made use of as a young feminist:
"What maid retrieve when man's flushed hope is lost?
Who hang so fiercely on the flying Gaul,
Foiled by a woman's hand, before a battered wall?"
"Exactly! Senora, a woman's pale hand." He was enjoying the
entente. He continued. "I migrated to join my son when my wife died
and I became too old and bothersome for people." Once again, his
eyes showed a slight sense of amusement, as if to him life had become
some kind of divine joke. "Isn't that what children are for? Do you
too look after your own old father?"
"He's dead." I replied perhaps too abruptly, but I did not
want to bring my father's memory into this room.
At last Francisco sipped on his sherry and I followed, letting silence
fill the room as the sherry filled my mouth. It felt the right thing to
do, as if the room itself needed a pause from our conversation. I wondered
how often this room heard voices.
"Do you like this sherry?" He asked, knowing fully well that
by the time I had sipped it my mouth was moist with the wine's scent,
moist with anticipation.
It tasted of history, of vellum and stone buildings, of fruit and olives
kept for generations in vats of the best woods, the best vinegar, and
the best oils.
"I have it imported. An old man has few pleasures and even fewer
I nodded and was pleased I had chosen the right slowness of pace. This
first visit I realised would be nothing more than an introduction. If
Francisco enjoyed my company there would be other visits, and it was during
those that he would talk of the matters I was so anxious to discuss. Time
had shaped this man, had moulded and formed the way he worked within the
world. Like a religious belief, time had become a companion to him, and
was as much a part of him as a lover of half a century might have been.
We shared the sherry and made almost casual conversation.
My research on Saragossa was holding well and I asked him about the
early Arab influences.
He was pleased with my interest and immediately began to quote a long
passage to me in Arabic. It did not faze him in the slightest that I clearly
could not understand a word of it.
"We had many Arab scholars come to the cathedral library because
there was much of interest for them there. Our cathedral, the Cathedral
de la Seo, was the older of the two cathedrals. It had the library, the
He refilled my sherry glass and we sat in this gentle conversation until
the light began to fade. By the time his daughter-in-law came into the
room it was almost dark. She turned on the light and I had to squint my
eyes to accustom them to the sudden illumination.
With his daughter-in-law in the room he immediately reverted back into
Latin. I don't know if it was a game he was playing with her or if he
didn't want her to know the details of our next meeting. I found it curious
but went along with it.
"I have enjoyed our talk," he said. "You will
He went over to the reading desk and snapped a single rose from the
arrangement. He handed it to me. "Even if what you want to know
is sub rosa? Will you still come to visit this old man?"
I smiled and took the rose.
I made a time to see him again.
Alone in the quiet of the night I thought back over my day, the drive,
Francisco, his library and his knowledge. Outside the moon had risen full
and fecund, its bluish light made patterns in the room, pretending at
What was I really looking for? I had put myself out on a limb for what?
A fifteenth century map? In the overall scheme of things, in the large
picture of my life, it didn't matter at all to me if the Vinland Map was
authentic or not. There was something else there, some other thing which
had grabbed at me, which compelled me, fascinated me.
Was it the idea of the map, the way the cartographer had combined
stories of exploration and empires only to have his work fall into the
darkness of silence?
Or was it more than that? Was it the curious way in which the map somehow
mirrored me? By looking at the map I was really looking at my own history.
I felt uneasy. Too much of my personal life seemed caught up in this quest
for the map's provenance. The whole of the Vinland Map's known history
had been shrouded in coincides and now I felt myself being drawn into,
somehow caught up in the improbable coincides of the map - there was Francisco's
connection to Crete's lover, and Eric's idea that my father had been involved
somehow, that he was part of an international conspiracy.
On the bedside table was the rose Francisco had given me. It perfumed
my bed, my sleep. 'Sub rosa,' he'd said.
As I fell asleep, I thought again of him and his library, the sherry
and the upholstered chairs. I thought of the colour purple, as if I had
seen some flower or other and its colour had once again caught my eye.
What an odd colour purple is - caught in the sunlight it bounces out and
away from the greenness of the leaves; yet in the shadows it remains silent,
hidden by that very same greenness. Is that the silence of the map? Is
that what sub rosa really means?
I slept deeply and over breakfast, refreshed, I decided I wanted to
know more about the rose and sub rosa. Francisco had given me the
flower as well as the phrase and I wanted to trace the connection, to
go beyond any dictionary definition. If anyone would have that knowledge
at her finger tips it would have to be Crete. I decided to call her.
"The rose? God you ask the most complex questions. The rose would
have to be the most loaded flower in the whole botanical catalogue. You
know I have a recipe for Turkish delights which begins: first plant
your roses - those lovely deep red smelly ones." She was in a
good mood and chatted away. Things must have been going well for her and
Gabbett. "What on earth do you want to know about roses?"
"The symbol of the secret?"
"Ah, sub rosa."
"How far do you want to go back, Knights Templar?"
I didn't know. "It's not my field, it's yours, just tell me about
She didn't say anything for awhile and then she said, "I'm serious.
We need to go to a ...," she hesitated knowing I would resist, "a
"Meridian, some things are tactile." Her voice sounded a little
hurt as if she was trying to give me the right advice but I was resisting
it. She continued defending her suggestion. "You wouldn't expect
to study art from a bunch of photographs would you? We need a garden,
a rose garden."
"Do you have a particular rosary in mind or will any clump of plants
do? I am, you know, familiar with what a rose looks like." I was
cynical and let it show. And perhaps I was a little angry. I wanted to
know something quite specific but Crete in her usual fashion wanted to
envelop me in a whole culture of knowledge. That was one of our great
differences. I looked for facts that fitted together like pieces in a
jigsaw puzzle while Crete made large sweeping gestures and let ideas float
on the surface as watercolours wash over the page. I checked myself. If
I wanted to explore this connection between the rose and the phrase perhaps
it was only fitting I did it Crete's way.
I conceded and agreed to meet her later in the day. For some reason
Crete believed that late afternoon was the best time to view roses and
being who she was, she had picked an elaborate recreation of a Victorian
rose garden. It was part of the city's central Botanic Gardens.
As I walked towards the arranged meeting place I had to admit I enjoyed
being out of my office. The air was a little crisp but there was plenty
of sun about; not the burning kind of mid summer sun, but the softer,
gentler, autumn sun. A temperate sun and one my fair skin doesn't shun.
I realised how much I had recently begun to enjoy the temperate,
the well tempered in climate, and music, and art, and fashion. It wasn't
a lack of passion or contrast that I saw in the well tempered but rather
a gentler, perhaps more profound, subtlety of contrast. The passions were
there all right; they just didn't see the need to parade about like a
teenager with excessive colour or attitude.
Crete had chosen to walk in a particularly perfumed part of the rose
garden. The gravel path was only wide enough for the two of us to walk
side by side, and it twisted in large graceful curves around beds and
arches of roses, which had been planted in masses to show off each variety.
Further along was a fountain, which I could hear rather than see, but
I had little doubt the path would eventually wind its way towards it.
That was the nature of such gardens, like an exposed labyrinth they wind
their way towards some central feature so that the entire garden is built
around that central axis. They were like a medieval map which centres
itself in Rome or Jerusalem and lets the world form and unfold around
those holy cities.
As we walked, I asked her about Gabbett.
She shrugged and took her time to talk. "We had a row last night.
It was my fault. I don't know..."
We walked on in silence, giving her the space to talk if she wanted
to. Sometimes Crete was an intensely private person and then at other
times, all she wanted to do was talk and talk about her life. I found
it hard to judge the time and moment.
"He came home," she continued, "and said his doctor wanted
him to go to a psychiatrist."
"Yes. I lost the plot. He'd managed to stop taking Prozac and he
was okay. He'd been taking pills for years, to numb the pain I guess,
the pain of unfulfillment. Sure we can all do with a bit of therapy but
not a shrink. Not all that medication and pills and control. They take
over your life... It's odd isn't it, now that he's found the courage to
make changes in his life they see him as a nut case, as someone in need
of a shrink."
"What does he think?"
"Mmm, that's what the row was about. I ranted and carried on, then
he turned to me, and said, 'Don't you think I've got a say in all this.'
He was right; of course, I'd been treating the situation as if he would
automatically comply. He wanted to talk about it and I thought he was
informing me." She shook her head. "Jamie's father... for years
there were shrinks in my life, telling me how to look after him. I was
only in my twenties, I didn't know how to take control away from the doctors,
toss away his Valium, and take on board something other than the medical
solution of hospitals and pills. When Gabbett told me I guess I just lost
myself in that terrible time. I couldn't bear it if Gabbett..." She
turned and looked at me. "I get it all so wrong, Meridian, so wrong."
"Crete," I hesitated for an instant, giving advice was not
something I felt comfortable doing. "Maybe you should tell him. Tell
him about that time, and the other. Then he'd know. He'd be able to give
you some understanding."
"I don't want to weigh him down. He's got so much to worry about.
There's still stuff with the kids. He can't see them. It really hurts
him and I think he fears it will go on forever. Some kind of punishment
for finally deciding to embrace life. He thinks he's had to make a choice
between loosing his children or loosing himself. I tell him it will get
better, that they'll come around, out of curiosity if nothing else, but
I don't think he believes me."
I nodded in some kind of agreement but let it slide. It was her life,
her relationship. We walked on in silence until we came to a garden bench;
it was nestled into the rose bed and had recently been painted to exaggerate
its Victorian design. It was a little too fussy, a little too domestic
for my taste. We sat down. Close at hand was a mass of pink fragrant blooms.
The flowers themselves, as roses go, were not particularly attractive
and with their short stems and clusters of petals, they didn't look as
if they'd be at all useful to florists. But their perfume was heavy and
inviting. A number of bees had also been attracted to the blooms and busied
themselves in the late afternoon sun. Their sound and the smell of the
roses were an hypnotic combination.
"Have you noticed," Crete said, "how the afternoon sun
is richer in colour, more reds I think. Altogether more mellow."
Her voice was soft and composed and I knew we wouldn't talk any further
Crete began to tell me about the rose. "Did you know it first came
to Europe via Spain? The Arabs planted rose gardens when they invaded."
"But why? Why import the rose?" I asked. "Why go to all
"Because they didn't see the rose as simply a flower. To the Arabs
the rose provided food, scent, flavour, essential oils, and of course,
beauty. Planting rose gardens was as much a part of their colonisation
of Spain as building mosques. It was just another part of their culture."
She told me how the rose spread as far as Paris but it lost its importance
after the fall of the Arabian influence. "You see the Europeans just
saw it as a flower, they didn't understand its cultural and culinary significance.
It wasn't until the Crusades, when once again the European and Arabian
cultures clashed that the rose became a significant symbol in Europe.
But of course, then it became a military and political emblem."
"Like the English in the War of the Roses?" I suggested.
"Yes, exactly. The white and the red rose. What a stroke of diplomatic
brilliance on the Tudor's part to create an emblem which combined them
On a bench, not far from us sat four old women. They looked as if they
regularly came here to meet and enjoy the gardens. They were dressed sensibly.
One of the women, the one who carried a walking stick of some beauty,
didn't talk to the others; she just sat and stared out into her own private
world. I noticed the stick; it was the kind I had secretly always thought
I'd get in my old age. Wooden and elegant. The end was tipped with silver
which had been generously engraved. The knob was decorated, carved with
a foliage pattern that made its way, just a little, down the nape of the
stick. I was too far away to see the detail of the carving but the overall
effect was of a functional and also an elegant walking stick. I liked
the stick and I also like the look of this old woman who watched over
her own private space and kept her own counsel.
Crete moved away from the political, it wasn't an area which interested
either of us. "If we put the political aside the rose held two really
important and sometimes conflicting ideas, it was the symbol of the woman
as sacred and the woman as sexual. The interesting thing about the rose
is that I can't think of an instance when it represents one without at
least a hint of the other. It doesn't, for example, represent barrenness
or pornography. The goddess, the sacred, is always fecund and creative.
The sexual woman is always enticing in her mystery, the folds of the vulva,
the lips, like the petals of the rose, desired but mysterious, perhaps
"A perfumed garden?"
"Yes. The flower gave a sweet and merry time to the poets, particularly
the Arabian poets."
I remembered a line from Hafiz. "The red rose is open and the
nightingale is drunk."
"Exactly! We can trace the symbolic rose back to the Greeks, to
Venus. The sexual, sacred and creative powers of women were explored in
her rites and rituals. The rose was her symbol."
Crete went on to explain. "There is by the way, another side to
the story which I'm not terribly interested in but you might be. It's
the Egyptian connection. Their god of silence, Horus, had the rose as
his emblem. Some consequently claim the phrase sub rosa comes from
Horus, but I think our cultural connections are more likely to come from
the Greek-Arab-European link than from ancient Egypt." She talked
further of how European culture had only in the last few hundred years
revisited the knowledge and lore of the ancient Egyptians.
Like the old woman, we sat in silence for a short time enjoying the
late afternoon sun, the roses, the perfume and the bees. I was only too
aware of how most of the ancient knowledge, especially from the Greeks,
had to come back to Europe via the Arabs, and in the early medieval period
there was only a handful of scholars who could read and translate Arabic.
Imagine having the task of translating Aristotle's ethics and presenting
it to the medieval church. How would anyone turn Aristotle's ideas into
something acceptable to a church where sins were listed with their penance
and indulgences sold? And what of Archimedes who understood about the
displacement of matter? How could he be translated for the minds of the
church that was otherwise preoccupied with the corporate state of saints
and angels, and the number of them who might fit onto a pin's head?
I had recently seen a list of medieval questions which included:
Why the fingers were made unequal;
Why the palm is concave;
Why water does not go out of a vessel open in the lower part, unless
an opening is made above;
Where thunder comes from;
What food the stars eat, if they are animals;
Whether beasts have souls;
Why we hear echoes;
Why joy is the cause of weeping;
Why the nose is located above the mouth;
Why men universally die;
Why, as one can see from darkness into the light, one cannot similarly
see from the light into darkness.
These questions had interested me; they'd given me an insight into the
problems a medieval scholar might have had. If I was to make a list of
questions now, questions a woman at the beginning of the 21st century
might ask, I wondered what I might include. Certainly, I ached for knowledge
about myself. I wanted to know how to live as an independent woman, how
to pursue ideas and thought as well as my own womanness. And in particular
I wondered if there was ever any way I could successfully combine my fascination
with the scientific and my fascination with the symbolic. One question
I might ask is, 'Why when I am most afraid of my womanness do I become
furiously academic?' I knew this was also one of Crete's questions. It
was after all what brought us here to this rosary.
Crete had been talking about the rose as a religious symbol, the holy
flower from Jerusalem
"The prayer, the rosary?" I suggested.
"Sure, it's another part of it, the Mary worship. Rosary beads
were once made from dried rose hips and you'll find pictures, icons and
statues of Mary holding a rose, or in some cases standing on a rose. Of
course, there is the opulent Madonna of the Rose Arbor by Schongauer.
It's an extraordinary work where Mary is portrayed as a rose, the
woman and the flower became one in the artist's mind. It's very beautiful;
the colours are soft and rich. Her robes are russets and reds, and her
honey coloured hair falls in long ringlets on the folds of her robes.
She holds the Christ child on her arm and they both look away from the
viewer, but he looks in one direction and she in another, as if they are
saying, "See, here is the human race." She sits on a moss bench
and behind her a rose grows on a trellis, the blooms are the colour of
her robes. The background is golden and above her head two angels, dressed
in deep blue, hold aloft her elaborate golden crown. There are birds too;
small robins and finches perched on the branches of the rose bush or on
the trellis supports. There can be little doubt the artist painted her
as a rose, the Madonna and flower becoming one. And just in case we didn't
understand his imagery, on her halo he wrote the inscription, Pluck
me also for thy son, O holiest Virgins."
"Yes, it's delicious isn't it." Crete smiled, "Well,
that's the translation I have been given."
I thought of the Latin which might have formed the inscription and wondered
why it had been so coarsely translated. "I don't suppose you remember
the Latin?" I asked Crete, but she didn't.
Crete continued. "The image of the mother goddess, the virgin and
the rose were all intertwined as the brambles themselves." She paused.
"This is where it gets really interesting. The ancient religions,
the sun worshippers, believed in one version or another, that each night,
or in some versions on one particular night in the year, the sun god died.
When this happened he was taken up by his mother who lived in the west,
and wrapped in her arms, as sunset, they sank into the night. During the
night, using her great powers of creation, the mother goddess resurrected
him to be born again in the east at dawn. The reds of sunset and sunrise
were seen as the blood of death and birth."
She continued. "It's a metaphor, a story which has been continued
in the Christian tradition with the story of Jesus' death and resurrection
at dawn on Easter Sunday."
I thought of the Pieta, the pity it evoked, the male god dead in the
arms of his mother. It was a powerful image and one I felt deep in my
psychic. How terrible a task for a woman to bury her child.
"It's one of the reasons why so many of the Gothic cathedrals placed
in their west wall a window depicting aspects of the Madonna's life, the
great roses of the mother goddess. In the late afternoon the light fills
the cathedral, reds and rich blues, golden browns and mauves. And in the
morning, the east window sheds on the altar and the crucifix, a fresh
new crisp light of yellows and greens and bright reds. If you can be in
one of those cathedrals to catch the dying sun shining through those roses,
you can begin to feel the power, the devotion of the goddess, the Mary
worship. The colours are, well, look around you, it's these same gentle
She was right, the reds and golds, even the whites looked deep with
their colour. I remembered the deep blue light at Chartres, how peaceful
it had felt, and yes, I had been there in the late afternoon. I was quietly
pleased by the chance of such good timing.
She continued. "Many of these cathedrals were named after the Queen
of the Rose, Mary, the female goddess, the mother of all creation."
In the gravel path she drew the outline of a typical medieval cathedral.
Those extraordinarily beautiful windows always facing west and down the
long body of the cathedral the crucifix and altar at the eastern end.
"I think cathedrals were built like this because at the time there
was still a lingering of the ancient religions, here and there and mixed
up with Christian beliefs. The Church of course made use of those old
religions, appropriated as much as they could."
Her drawing looked a little like a person, the naves forming the arms,
the altar section the head.
"The really interesting connections," she said, "are
around blood. It's a connection I'm still working on." She went to
wipe out her drawing of the cathedral but I stopped her. For some reason
I wanted to leave the trace of it in the gravel, as if it was a marker
to our conversation.
It was getting chilly and so we left the rosary and made our way up
to the cafe district of town. "I want to buy you a sherry."
I said knowing Crete would be surprised by my choice of drink.
At the wine bar I was left asking for advice, I had no idea how to order
a sherry and had been confused by the list. After a good deal of consultation
I decided on two amontillados. It was the colour that had convinced me
in the end, a rich, late afternoon amber colour that seemed completely
in keeping with the roses and our conversation. They were poured from
a slim long bottle, the kind that might contain very precious oils.
We were given a small plate of fat green olives and we moved to a table
in a quiet part of the wine bar to continue our conversation. As I put
the sherries down I advised Crete to not touch the wine until it had perfumed
the air. I was enjoying mimicking Francisco.
Crete embraced the new experience. She took the small glass to her nose
and smelt the wine, then putting it down she turned it around slowly watching
the light reflect in the amber colour, and noticed, as I had done in Francisco's
library, how the viscous wine left faint traces of patterns on the glass.
"And sub rosa?" I prompted her.
"Well, for the ancients, women held two great secrets of life.
We bled from a wound which did not hurt us and," she stressed the
word, "we created new life in the form of a child, both a female
and a male child. We didn't just reproduce ourselves we also knew how
to reproduce them." She paused and reflected. "All of
this must have been very daunting for the men. Perhaps it made them a
little afraid of us."
"Perhaps it still does."
The sherry was beginning to perfume our space and I felt, for the second
time, my mouth salivate with the desire for its taste. But this was a
different colour sherry than the one I had drunk with Francisco, and it
carried a richer, warmer odour.
"Where this relates to roses," Crete resumed, "is that
it became the symbol for a whole set of secret rites and knowledge. But
to understand its power we need to view religions anthropologically, as
a continuum of human ideas and needs. Each new religion takes customs
and rites and symbols from the old ones. So the rose for the Greeks represented
the secret sexual, creation, sacred rites of Venus; for the primitives
and sun worshippers, it represented the rites associated with the mother
goddess and her ability to give birth, again and again to the male god.
In the Christian version Mary, the mother of god, is worshipped in various
rituals including the rosary."
Crete digressed, "I have always thought that the Christian religion,
in most of its forms is a very male religion and has often had a great
unease with the strong Mary worship of its followers. Don't forget Mary
didn't die either, she just ascended to heaven."
I could see Crete's point. "She couldn't die could she, not if
she was connected to the great mother goddess. If she died then all of
creation would die with her, we would be plunged into perpetual winter."
Crete nodded. "And that part is never explained. The church has
tried to sanitise the Mary worship, take it away from its primitive base,
but they haven't been completely successful in doing that." She thought
for a moment. "I'm stumbling for words, for a way of putting it all
together, precisely because the church has tried to sanitise it, tried
to take the sexual, the creation aspect out of the Mary worship. It reduced
the whole thing to something awkward and uneasy and they needed to invent
the improbable immaculate conception. Are we to believe that Mary never
She took the sherry to her nose again, "You know this really is
very good. When can I taste it?"
"Not until your mouth is wet with anticipation."
"Sounds vaguely sexual. Where did you acquire this sherry taste
I didn't tell. I encouraged her to continue
"There's one last part to this puzzle." Crete said, "It
has to do with what the male priests do inside the cathedrals, inside
the body of the churches. The initiated stands at the head of the church,
at the altar, and performs a ritual that turns bread and wine into the
body and blood of their male god. The initiated men are performing a creation
rite; they are appropriating the power of the woman. It's little wonder
that there is such a fuss in making women priests."
She smiled. "I warned you the rose was a loaded symbol. Sub
rosa weaves its way thought all of this. It depends where you're coming
from". She raised an eyebrow; "I'd like to know why you're so
I told her of Francisco's parting gesture.
"Can't you guess?" She teased me with suggestion.
"Don't be daft, he's really old!" I snapped and was surprised
at the intensity of my annoyance.
"Well, Meridian," she took her time and enjoyed the play.
"In the sexual mysteries of Venus, the lore of the secret knowledge
of love and sexuality and creation, the white rose represents chaste knowledge
and the red rose... "
She continued to tease me and I shrugged and made light of it. I took
the glass to my lips and tasted the rich wine.
The wine merchant, who was known to me, came over and sat with us. He
had brought with him a few slices of fresh peach and the long thin sherry
bottle. "This might be more refreshing than the olives," he
suggested. "Try a slice." He was right, the olives were a little
too salty, a little too acidic for the mellow rounded taste of the amontillado.
The peach, golden yellow with its core stained red from the stone, moist
like the petals of a rose, was exactly right. Both tastes lingered together
in the depth of my mouth.
Crete's mobile rang. I didn't know she had one. "It's Gabbett."
She said. "He insists I carry the thing. He's the only one with the
number. I hate it." She answered her phone.
I thought back on the illuminations in the fifteenth century Book
of Hours. What I had thought of as decoration I could now see was
probably commentary, or perhaps another text of its own, drawn and designed
in a code familiar to the medieval mind but complex and mysterious to
me. The rose had flowered in those border trellises, the rose of the goddess,
of Mary, of women, of creation, of fecundity. How much of this had Francisco
been referring to?
Crete finished her call. "Sorry about that. It's a security thing
I think. He just likes to know where I am. Funny that. I thought it was
just when he was interstate, but it's all the time. So I said I'd take
the phone with me. It's easier. He asked me if we've eaten, I told him
we'd dined on peaches!"
We laughed and I realised we'd both had too much to drink.
"He'll be here soon, said he thinks he'll run you home as well."
"Maybe some food?" But I didn't feel hungry and nor did Crete.
"By the way," Crete asked. "What colour was the rose
Francisco gave you?"
"Mauve," I lied. "A kind of silvery mauve."
I'm not sure why, but I didn't tell her it was red, a deep, dark, velvety
Gabbett arrived and bundled us both up into his car. The cold night
air hit me hard and I swayed with the warmth of the sherry. His arm grabbed
me. He was stronger than I'd imagined. He wasn't the kind of man to display
his size or strength.
We arrived at my place and he walked me to the door and waited while
I turned on the lights. I touched his arm. "Gabbett, be gentle with
"I am Meridian, I am."
"Ask her about it, about her past." I knew I had to be careful
here but the wine was speaking, tossing caution away.
He shook his head. "Goodnight, drink some water."
I didn't let go of his arm.
"Meridian, we all have a past, if she wants to tell me any of hers
she will, in her own time. Don't worry."
I let go of his arm. "Goodnight," I whispered, and he left.