I felt more than a little excitement as I drove towards Chaffey. This
was my fourth visit to Francisco's library.
It was raining quite heavily and I turned off the car radio to listen
to the sound of the windscreen wipers on the glass. I'd always like the
swish-swish of the wipers, the pattern it sets up, like a metronome to
the road. I was glad that in spite of other engineering advances in car
technology, sound had remained much the same for years. My old car had
finally given up and I had purchased a new one - silver and fun to drive.
Sitting nestled in the passenger seat was a long thin bottle of very
fine fino sherry. It was an Australian show variety; made using the traditional
solera system and one I hoped Francisco might enjoy. He had often said
to me, only the Spanish could make sherry, I hoped to prove him wrong.
As always, he greeted me in the library.
He took the sherry bottle and inquisitively inspected its labels, both
back and front. I could tell by his expression that he was keen to try
it. His hands felt the temperature of the bottle. "It's cool enough,
shall we try your gift?" I nodded.
He went to a cupboard and brought to the place where we always sat,
two glasses and a corking knife. I took the seat which I knew was meant
for me. With very little ceremony, he poured two glasses of the fino sherry.
He had brought to the small table not the glasses we normally used but
two decorative ones. Most of the bowl of the glass was stained a deep
blood red colour with a rim of clear glass at the lip. Into the deep red
had been etched a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers. I was reminded
of the trellising patterns I had been so captured by in the medieval manuscript
and I wondered about the age and preciousness of these delicate glasses.
"Something special for this very fine wine. Something special for
this Australian vintage." He looked at me and smiled enjoying the
innuendo and he took his glass to his lips in what I would have under
different circumstances interpreted as a sexual gesture. If I had been
older or him younger, I thought, and a faint smile formed on my face.
I dropped my eyes in what he must have seen as a demure gesture, but what
was in fact generated by my sudden understanding and the subsequent slight
embarrassment I felt. Perhaps, I thought, it had not been such a good
idea to bring the wine. Such a gift obviously carried with it more than
the gift of wine.
And yet I wanted to share the taste with him. The perfume of the wine,
the anticipating moisture of the mouth, the lips, the tongue, the desire
for taste. I wanted to share that game with him, but through my culture,
my country's vintage. I wanted to share with him the taste of the New
World. Of stone wineries only a couple of generations old, of vines still
budding, of vats not yet black with age. I wanted to share the taste of
this sherry not yet steeped in so much history. This sherry was still
acquiring history and I liked that. I liked the scope of possibility.
I let my eyes slowly rise again and meet his. Without a word and not
taking my eyes away from him, I slowly took the blood red glass to my
mouth. I let the strong smooth wine moisten my tongue and my lips. Perhaps
we had both known, not in our consciousness, but somewhere deep in the
night dreaming, that I would one day bring this wine to him.
He smiled and spoke, breaking the moment. It was enough to play at this
discovery, to travel the world of innuendo, of coveted gestures and possibilities.
Desire is rushed at by the young and the hungry, but how much more delicious
it is to let it stand for a while tantalising the mind until such appetite
is aroused that all inhibitions are overcome.
Francisco told me the story of his glasses.
The Seventh Mandala - Desire
I remember vividly the day I purchased these glasses. It was in
Saragossa, in a little shop not far from the cathedral. It was a shop
I didn't often go into, mainly because I hardly ever went down that
street. You see, leading from the cathedral to the river were a series
of small streets, really nothing more than narrow lanes, most of them,
and they were lined with old shops selling religious souvenirs. I
had, of course, no time for such things and rarely went down that
On this particular day it was raining, not unlike the weather outside
today. I can't quite recall, perhaps I took a short cut through that
street; perhaps I thought the awnings might give me shelter.
It was quite awhile ago; I was a young man then. I saw these glasses
in the window and I knew instantly I must have them. Can you imagine
that Senora; my youth was completely overcome with avarice? I rushed
into the shop and spent my entire week's salary on them.
When I got back to my desk with my proud purchase, I was very disappointed
that no one was interested in inspecting them. We had just had a tapestry
delivered to the museum. It had been several years in restoration
and such an event greatly overshadowed the purchase of a few sherry
glasses, even these most beautiful ones.
I went down the stairs to the room where the tapestry was being
hung. It was one of the Brussels series of the Virtues and Vices.
We had two of the series, Original Sin and the Passions
of Man. It was the Passions, which was being re-hung.
I stood there and watched it unfold, this magnificent tapestry and
for the second time my eye was caught by unusual beauty. For the second
time in so many hours I had found something I longed for, something
I needed to touch and know.
The tapestry was worked in tones of blues and reds and depicted
all the human passions through liturgical and symbolic emblems. The
detail was extraordinary but perhaps the most memorable image was
the multitude of wild spring flowers strewn upon a grassy meadow.
In my mind the two objects blurred together and I can't think of
the tapestry without thinking of these glasses. It's odd, some were
very critical, very passé about the tapestry. They thought
the work a little too full blown, as if by the early sixteenth century
the art of medieval tapestry had lost its prime, its youthful beauty,
and like a man who had aged, the beauty and energy caught by the medieval
weavers was also in decline. But, I did not agree. Even as a young
man I did not agree. I knew wine needs to mature. So too do people,
and so too do movements of art. I have no trouble at all with maturity,
in any of the things a man can desire, in wine, in people or in late
medieval design. And you Senora? You are quite fascinated with a late
medieval map, isn't that so?
I avoided this opening to talk about the map and also the play on the
wine I had brought. I also tried to avoid the intensity in the air between
us. I was playing my own game. Just as he had taught me to wait for the
wine, wait until my mouth salivated with anticipation, so too I was delaying
the time when we could talk of the map. I wanted to hold out as long as
I could; hoping that then he would be thirsty enough to give me what I
wanted to know. Instead, I asked him about the tapestries. "You hadn't
told me of this museum, was it within the cathedral?"
"Yes, yes. I have told you that the sacristy consists of a series
of apartments. Leading from the first is a corridor, quite a long one,
a very noisy place. I recall an echo, it was the flooring, they were polished
wood and without carpet. We often complained about the noise the tourist
constantly made as they went to see the tapestries. I don't know why it
was never carpeted, no doubt something about authenticity. A lot of nonsense.
Hundreds of years ago there was nothing like the queues of noisy tourists.
There were pilgrims, of course, but nothing like these tourists who have
no care for the fact that the scriptorium and library are so close at
For a moment he was annoyed and I realised it must have been a contentious
issue. On one hand, the tourist's admission fee was probably needed for
upkeep, but on the other, the place was a functional cathedral, scriptorium
and library. He explained to me that the scriptorium was a busy place
where scribes worked mainly on presentation illumination manuscripts.
He thought it slightly absurd that some new cathedrals still wanted to
have hand scribed and illuminated gospels. "Of course," he said
wryly, "they call themselves illuminators now, the humble word scribe
is beneath them."
He poured a little more sherry into our glasses. "There were of
course a few, those involved in restoration and antiquity who still preferred
to be called scribes." His mood changed slightly and for a few minutes
he was lost in this thoughts, back, no doubt, at the cathedral. He smiled,
almost to himself and looking at me he said, "One or two, they were
very kind to us."
I thought it odd that he had included me in his memory. Usually his
language was more precise than this. But I made nothing of it. Clearly
our talk had stirred up some potent memory. The moment passed and he continued
talking about the tourist. "They were so noisy, it seemed impossible
for them to walk down a corridor quietly. The problem was that the museum
was only accessible from a staircase at the end of the corridor. And the
staircase itself caused them to chatter even more because it was a particularly
fine one. It had an elaborate metal balustrade where iron vines and flowers
weaved around the supports."
"Indeed, like the decoration in many medieval books. If I remember
rightly there were a few large and frightening beasts among the vines."
His eyes laughed, "Not sufficient to scare aware the tourist. I thought
we should erect a few gargoyles but nothing would keep the tourist quiet,
their voices echoed down the corridor and bounced about the stone staircase.
It was most distracting."
"And the museum was above the library?" I asked.
"Not exactly, but more or less. The first room of the museum, it
is called the Museo de Tapices, gave way to other rooms, one after the
other and in true Gothic style they all connected back onto each other.
Not just the museum, the whole of the sacristy was built like this. The
rooms followed on from each other but not always in a direct line. You
might, for example need to go from one floor to the next in order to progress
through the rooms".
He frowned, slightly. "I knew it well, the passage ways, the back
stairwells. But anyone who first arrived found it very confusing. Still,"
he added, "for someone who is not used to it, a shopping mall or
a large department store can be a very frightening maze. It's just a matter
of what we're use to. And the design was a fairly standard security device."
He grinned, "Security cameras and alarm bells weren't available to
the medieval architects. Not that we are talking about a sophisticated
labyrinth here. It would only take you a couple of days before you were
familiar enough with it. It would have only hindered the casual intruder
or the first wave of victorious soldiers hot for the spoils of their battle."
"Perhaps that might be enough, after a couple of days the victor
might be calm enough to begin to value the cathedral's treasures and not
want to just loot for the sake of it. What about the tourists?" I
"Yes, of course, and there were some amusing stories about them
straying away from their guide and getting lost. But they were always
meant to be in the company of a beadle. That's what we called them, not
guides but beadles! We had two of them, they wore wigs and dressed in
long black coats. Very silly. I wonder if they still dress like that.
Imagine having to wear a wig, like a lawyer's wig, every day at work.
There is an English joke, they were called Beadledom and Beadledee! I
don't understand this joke but I can see you like it."
I tried to explain it to him but I eventually gave up. Some things are
just not translatable.
He continued. "It wasn't just the invaders that needed to be guarded
against, it was fashion itself. The church waxed and waned over the question
of piety, over the question of poverty, over interpretation, over dogma,
over law. This map you are so interested in reputedly came from the Council
of Basel, 1440 or there about, am I right?"
"Yes, no later than 1431. That's when Pope Eugene IV suspended
proceedings and transferred a watered down version of the Council to Florence."
"And that is the crux of the issue. It is a perfect example of
fashion changing in the Church. The Council of Basel was disbanded because
the Pope won the day. There was something like a revolution going on,
the bishops wanted to establish authority and override the Pope. They
wanted to set up a kind of Magna Carta. Later, in 1460, Pius II issued
a decree condemning what he called, how do you translate it?"
"Ah yes. Pius saw it as a deadly poison and forbade under pain
of excommunication any appeal to a council that questioned the Pope's
authority. The decree was restated by his successors, Sixtus IV and Julius
II. They were very wary and concerned about the rise of power of the Councils,
of the cardinals, bishops and cannons and others in the Church."
Francisco had read well on the topic and he was determined we should
talk of it. Perhaps, I thought, we had waited long enough. We talked of
the politics of the 15th century Church and he reminded me of the power
of the monasteries. Scattered over so much of the Christian world monasteries
linked together by brotherhoods were potentially powerful institutions.
They could align with kings and conquerors, they could hide objects and
harbour heretics, and they could form a chain of safe houses for those
travelling on Church or other business. So when the Carthusians in particular
spoke out against this destruction of the Council system, of course the
Pope felt threatened.
"In such a climate Senora, what do you think might happen to the
papers which had been prepared at Basel during the Council? Do you think
they would be proudly displayed? Once the Pope had put in place such a
cloud of excommunication, which probably meant death, if not torture,
do you think any library, any cathedral, any monastery would fly a banner
saying they had these papers in their collection?"
He stopped talking as if he knew he had said just enough to intrigue
me. Language had become the desideratum, and we were playing a game with
each other, over the wine, the stories, the innuendo. Desire in all its
forms was lingering like a gargoyle in his library.
And then he spoke again which surprised me. Perhaps he wasn't quite
sure I had been lured into his intrigue, perhaps for a moment he simply
doubted his own ability to attract. "There is something else you
should remember. The Crusades, which virtually ended two hundred years
before the time you are interested in, nevertheless, established communication
route throughout the Western Church. Those links, partly trade and commerce
links, partly road links, partly bonds of brotherhood, continued to be
used long after the Crusades had petered out. So it would not be unusual
two hundred years later for certain volumes, papers, documents, to find
their way from Basel to Saragossa for example, since such connections
were a part of the crusader routes. They are far apart, it is true, but
there are times in history, and for some, such a time might well have
been at the sudden closure of the Council of Basel, when it was prudent
to put some distance between oneself and Rome."
Francisco suddenly switched to Latin which caught me quite unprepared.
It was a habit I would become used to. I think he simply found English
too difficult to maintain for a long period of time, Latin was more familiar
to him and easier than English. I concentrated, but I had missed the first
of his sentences. "...or there was another route. The German priest,
Nicholas of Cusa, a mathematician, a scholar, an experimental scientist
and a philosopher. Did you know he was a scientist?"
"A Renaissance Man. Before he was ordained a priest he attended
the Council of Basel and in 1433 published 'De Concordantia Catholica',
a treatise advocating the formation and maintenance of the Councils as
an authoritative body in the Church. But by 1437 he reversed his position
and came out strongly supporting Pope Eugene. He would have made many
enemies at the Council of Basel. He was accused of expediency but it didn't
harm him. He made a virtue of it. He taught a philosophy where man's search
for truth was analogous to trying to convert a square into a circle.
Expediency." He said in English.
I thought of the mysteries of the transcendental number *. But there
was something else. Francisco's use of Latin had made the whole conversation
take on an air of secretiveness as if he was giving me knowledge only
available to the initiate. Were we now, I wondered, in the country of
Francisco continued. "His philosophy taught a particular kind
of scepticism which no doubt helped him so radically change his mind on
the issue of the Church's authority. And it proved useful; he was made
Cardinal of Brixen in Italy.
"But I digress, it was not his piety that the man was known
for but rather his scientific experiments, he, for example, discovered
and measured the weight of air. Just think of it. A man who makes a virtue
out of expedience is remembered for discovering the weight of..."
He gestured extravagantly, "Nothing at all!"
"He is not your favourite character in history?" I said in
Francisco leant towards me. "Senora, I will forgive him a great
deal of human foibles for one thing. He collected a great library."
And quite suddenly, as if Francisco's mood had changed he spoke once again
in English. "Of particular interest to me was his manuscript collection.
He re-discovered twelve lost comedies of the Roman writer Plautus."
This did not warm me to Nicolas of Cusa, I had always thought the Roman
playwright Plautus to be overrated, and had not engaged at all with his
comedies. "Cusa could have travelled to Spain?" I asked.
"Of course. I have been at great pains to point out to you how
he was a cultured man of many interests. There is one other interesting
thing about him you should know. He is responsible for a map of Germany.
It was found in his library and printed posthumously. It's considered
to be the first modern map of Germany. The map includes Denmark, Southern
Scandinavia and the Baltic. Sadly for both of us it did not include Spain,
so we cannot deduce from this map that he travelled widely in Spain, but
what we can deduce is that he was very interested in the science of cartography,
and he was a scholar who might well have been interested in the preservation
of certain documents." Francisco smiled, pleased with himself and
his story, but mostly I thought, he was pleased with my attention.
"The tapestries," he continued, "arrived at the Cathedral
at about this time. So everything is in place at the same time, the first
half of the fifteenth century. It's very interesting isn't it, to have
so many things all happening together."
He paused now for a few moments and his mood changed a little. He touched
the glass as if it held more significance than he was prepared to reveal.
He continued. "The tapestries form quite a well known collection.
I'm told this, you understand. It's not my field. Apart from the one I
have already told you about there was a very famous crucifixion from Flanders,
The Story of the Holy Cross and an often cited Esther and Ahasuerus
from France." He poured some more sherry into both of our glasses
and with more candour than I had seen in him before he leant forward and
placed his hand on mine. I must have looked as I felt, slightly alarmed
and yet not repulsed, for he continued to speak in his soft low voice
and neither removed his hand nor progressed any further.
"What has captured the imagination of that particular tapestry
is the opulence of the feast. It was a great banquet in the house of an
important lord. The table was set ready for the feast." His hand
on mine felt warm, almost hot. He continued to describe the tapestry.
"At the centre of the table was the game, a peacock, dressed and
succulent. To the side trumpeters blew their horns..."
"Francisco," I cut across him. My voice was hushed, almost
a whisper. " I don't know what to do."
"Senora, you do nothing, absolutely nothing."
His hand tightened around mine and he stood up, leading me toward the
small door in the far wall of the library. He opened it onto an antechamber
where he must have taken his siestas.
My eyes felt wide open, my breathing erratic, difficult. I wasn't at
all sure of what I was doing. Could I really be desiring this man, this
old man from a world of libraries and cathedrals and tiny streets and
dark red glasses?
He did not speak but with all the confidence of living, all the experience
of life, he placed his hands firmly on my bottom and drew me to him. I
smelt the rich taste of sherry on his breath. His eyes were fixed onto
mine I could feel his hands slip under my skirt and caress my stockinged
buttocks. Then, he pushed his hands in between my legs, parting them slightly,
and pushing up he put pressure on my labia. In minute movements he withdrew
the pressure and then applied it again, and again, and again. I began
to rock gently with the movement. And in all of this he did not once take
his eyes from mine. My breathing settled down and became long and deep.
I don't know how long we stayed like that; all time seemed to cease,
as did everything else about the outside world.
"You are ready for me now." He said, forming the words almost
without voice. And I was, quite completely and absolutely ready.
The phone rang. I was not in the mood for Eric but that did not deter
"The point is Meridian, there is a reason for a conspiracy."
He always spoke rapidly but this time he was going a little too fast for
"Slow down!" I demanded with a sharpness which was not entirely
"What's the matter?" He paused and then said very slowly,
"Are you ill?"
How could I tell him? I felt soft and quiet and I just wanted to be
alone to think. Was it melancholy? There was a kind of deep and quiet
sadness in me, a sadness which comes from discovering something which
is both profound and new, from discovering something which you know is
transitory, as transitory as life itself. "No. Sorry. A slight headache."
I lied. "Just slow down a bit."
Reluctantly, I did not have the energy to dodge his wishes, I agreed
to meet him. He suggested a cafe in the old section of the port where
he had to wait for a boat or a mariner or something. He'd been unclear
about the reason, or I might have missed his explanation. It didn't worry
me. It had been years since I'd been to the port, especially this section
and, if I had to meet Eric for a dose of his conspiracy theory, then it
might as well be in such a place. At the very least, I thought, I could
do with the fresh air.
As I walked along the wharf I noticed a certain distinctive smell -
the smell of old ports. I'd quite forgotten it and I breathed in deeply
letting it fill my lungs. It's a smell not just of the sea but of people,
of diesel and food and washing and stories and, of course, fish. It's
a good human smell. It's the smell of yarns and adventure, of long boring
days and of make-believe.
The cafe sat on the edge of one of the utility canals where fishing
and tugboats lined the wharf. There were no yachts, catamarans or trendy
weekenders here. The cafe reflected its clientele. In fact, I thought
it a very Eric kind of place - the tea was well stewed, the coffee instant,
but the soup was home made, chunky and fresh and smelling delicious. It
was served with a very large slice of freshly baked white bread and a
wallop of butter on the side of the plate. I could have ordered fish and
chips but I'd smelt the soup and opted for that. I also ordered a glass
of water, which caused a slight stir, everyone else it seemed, including
Eric, order a mug of tanniny tea and ritually piled it with sugar.
"They're famous for their tea," he said, trying to encourage
"I've no doubt. " And I told Eric about the time I had boarded
an overnight train expecting to find the sleeping berth I'd booked. But
on boarding, I was informed my carriage had been derailed and I now had
to sit up all night. As compensation, I was offered, with official seriousness,
a free cup of Australian Rail tea. That was the last time in my life I
drank stewed black sugary tea. Even the smell reminded me of that long
uncomfortable night. There is everything romantic about an old fashioned
sleeping berth in an overnight train, and absolutely nothing at all romantic
about sitting up all night in a seat designed for someone else's body.
I haven't risked the trains since.
"So what is this conspiracy?" I asked.
"Well, in order for my theory to work there needed to be a reason
for drumming up anti-Italian feeling in America at the time the map was
I agreed. The coincidences surrounding the rediscovery of the Vinland
Map were too far fetched. It made a lot more sense to see it all as some
kind of master plan involving carefully orchestrated moves in England,
Europe and America. "Unless of course," I joked, "the whole
thing was a training exercise. You know a multi-national training exercise
between MI5, Spanish intelligence and the CIA".
Eric frowned; he didn't like the way I'd throw such wild cards into
the pack. He'd never liked it. "Was there anything, anything at all
you haven't told me about, anything to do with your father's papers?"
I shook my head. "With the notes you translated you mean?"
"Yes. I'm sure you've overlooked something. Think, Meridian."
I thought back to that day when I had come across the notes written
in Greenlandic - the old atlas, the woman at the gate, the uneasiness.
Nothing came to mind. "What sort of thing are you looking for?"
"Something American, something about the..."
I broke in. "The Kennedys?"
Eric smiled. "Yes. What was it?"
"Nothing. A newspaper clipping. An old article before J F was president
and the assassinations began. About the Kennedy brothers. I guess it was
a 'watch this name' kind of article. I'm sorry. I didn't think it had
anything to do with the notes."
"Can you remember if the article came from an Australian or overseas
I shook my head. "I'm not sure of the paper. I don't think I looked.
I wasn't interested. But I did notice it had been sent to my father by
a newspaper-cutting agency. The stamp looked like a government agency
and the phone number wasn't Australian, the digits were all wrong. What
does it mean?"
"That the Kennedys were involved."
I stared at him in disbelieve. Was that unfortunate family going to
have to take on more conspiracy theory?
Eric could see my reaction. "The point is this." Eric continued
doggedly, "If not the Kennedys then their sort - Irish American money.
These fortunes, not unlike most great fortunes, were at times made less
than legitimately." He stopped himself for an instant and carefully
qualified his rash statement. "I'm going back to early last century
and not all of these fortunes came that way, but there were some very
dodgy business interests lurking about the place. The Irish connections
in gambling, horseracing, and of course liquor, wasn't as publicised as
the Mafia's, but it was there all right. The main difference between the
Kennedys and the Mafia families who were satisfied with wealth and power,
is that old man Joe Kennedy wanted respectability as well. We all know
he had his eye on the White House."
"That was the gist of the article. But where are you going with
"At exactly the time the map was so sensationally released Robert
Kennedy, as the Senator for New York, chaired the Select Committee on
Improper Activities. Sure, it's not the famous committee, all we ever
heard about was the Committee on un-American Activities, but Kennedy's
Committee was just as important."
"What was it concerned with," I asked. "Politician's
"If only. Its focus was corruption in the right wing union movement."
Eric was beginning to make some interesting connections and I tried
to concentrate a little better. He continued. "Shielded by all the
publicity of the un-American Activities Committee Senator Bobby Kennedy
was running his own shop prosecuting corrupt right wing union leaders."
He had slowed his speech right down and was taking trouble to be lucid,
he must have realised I was distracted. "Much of the Mafia activity,
protection of one sort or another, had gone into the union movement. At
the time, you have to remember, the union movement was about controlling
the work force so that Family members, or those paying protection, could
buy sweetheart labour deals."
Our soup arrived. It was a kind of vegetable minestrone mixture. I gave
it some pepper for good measure and Eric, who was one of the few people
I knew who ate and actually enjoyed salted fish, liberally sprinkled the
salt over his. We buttered our bread and began to eat. It was delicious
and I hadn't realised just how hungry I was.
Eric continued. "The old Mafia skills proved useful in keeping
the workers in line and eradicating any whistle blowers. It was a lucrative
business and industry paid up. After all, the economy was going well,
manufacturing was in top gear and nobody wanted labour problems. It was
post war boom times when, after so much austerity, people were spending
on refrigerators, cars, radios, lawn mowers..."
"The modern woman in her modern kitchen." I pictured the 50's
ads - a gleaming white kitchen filled with gadgetry of every kind. "The
soup's great!" I added.
Eric nodded, "You should have had the tea as well, the whole package."
"Next time." I said to appease him, but I knew there was unlikely
to be a next time. There just wasn't any reason for me to come down to
the old port.
Eric continued. "Kennedy's committee, by investigating the union
movement officials, was putting pressure on one of the biggest protection
industries, probably bigger than the prohibition, that America had ever
seen. He was hitting the Mafia or more accurately, large Italian financial
interests and their dynasties."
"Has there ever been an Italian president?" I couldn't think
of one but I only knew the famous presidents.
"No, and for that matter there is more likely to be a black president
before an Italian. The Irish Catholics in the Kennedys won the new money
race to respectability."
"And part of the way they climbed the social ladder of respectability
was by discrediting the Italian Catholics?" I was beginning to see
"That's the key, one lot had cleaned up their act but the other
lot hadn't. In the union movement the Mafia was still using the old methods
of sending in a hit man, intimidation, muscle, guns and bribery."
"And the new methods?" I asked.
"Public opinion. If you have a good press you can just about get
away with anything."
"So they controlled newspapers?"
"In one way or the other. Owning the press became a powerful weapon.
But don't forget the other great weapon. The banks."
"I don't follow you?"
"A bankrupt opponent was as powerless as one who had had a visit
from the hit man. The press and financial institutions were the new hit
I had rarely seen Eric so colourful, he was enjoying the details of
his conspiracy theory and was playing at it, imitating some character
out of a gangster movie. It felt a long way from his museum office and
his love of archaeology. A long way from the staid Eric I had known since
"We'll need to look, but I think the date on that newspaper clipping
of your father's will match up with the date of the release of the map."
Eric went on, "By itself, the map couldn't sway public opinion, it's
just that it proved to be one more factor in what was becoming an ever
increasing list. The rise of the Kennedy clan and the fall from grace
of the Italians who, incidentally, were the enemy during the war."
"The Irish were hardly pro the Allies." I pointed out.
"Yes, funny how nothing is ever made of that."
"Public opinion." I suggested, and finished off the last of
my soup by wiping the sides of the bowl with some bread.
Eric agreed. "Releasing the map on the eve of Columbus Day maximised
its effects, the Italian community could no longer claim one of their
nationals discovered America." Eric asked if I wanted another bowl
of soup, he was still eating his and I had finished off ever drop of mine.
It was tempting but I thought better of it.
Eric continued, "Just look at the intensity and emotions in the
Italian community's defence of Columbus. It bore all the hallmarks of
We talked for a time about the Italian-American judge, Michael Musmanno,
whose books and articles defending Columbus were almost legendary in their
passion. "He was chair of the Columbus Society, did you know?"
Eric didn't, but he recalled seeing the man. "When we were in Newfoundland,
on the dig, Musmanno made a real nuisance of himself. He'd send up spurious
reporters, I guess from the Columbus Society, to try to find out about
the dig. We were all warned to avoid reporters or over curious outsiders.
I saw him once; he was with a group of his people picketing a conference.
He was possessed. Perhaps," Eric added, "he was almost as possessed
as we were. He said something I'll probably never forget, he said the
human mind couldn't handle a contradiction."
"That's a very narrow view."
"Yes. He wanted the world to be black and white. A truth was a
truth, something mathematical and handed down by God. For him Columbus
discovering America was such a truth." Eric had finished his soup
and looked up at me. "What do you think causes that kind of need
"Some kind of fear, I guess." I was surprised by Eric's question.
Had I over all the years sold him short, thinking him afraid of the emotional
self? Was I the one who had always kept our friendship on an intellectual
rather than emotional level? I made an effort to engage with Eric. "A
fear of transcendentalism?"
He nodded, "The Shank's principle. You spend your life calculating
*, trying to pin down the mysteries of the circle only to have someone
else discover you made a mistake in your calculations. The transcendental
can't be pinned down, can't be defined. That, not his calculation error,
was Shank's real mistake."
"How many places did he get to?" I asked.
"Seven hundred odd. Just think of it. He calculated that many decimal
places until the number resolved. But he was wrong. In an early calculation,
he made a simple human error. He thought he travelled to the edge of the
circle's mystery but he hadn't."
Eric took from his satchel a library printout listing all the newspaper
articles associated with the release of the map. It was pages in length
and the newspapers were prestigious ones: The New York Times, front page;
the New York Review of Books; the New York Financial Review; the New Yorker....
New York. Yes, Robert Kennedy, the Senator from New York. I thought of
the amount of publicity the Vinland Map had received. It was just too
good a job for any university public relations unit, they were universally
hopeless. Most of them would be lucky to get the release of a cure for
cancer on the back few pages of a weekly give-away.
At this moment we were interrupted by a slimly built man, probably a
seaman if the smell of fish was anything to go by. He spoke to Eric in
a hoarse whisper and then handed him a parcel, wrapped in newspaper and
tied up with a piece of fraying twine. Eric didn't introduce me to the
man who appeared nervous and worried by my presence. I put my nose into
the list of newspaper articles and left the two to conduct whatever business
there was between them. The man left as quickly as he had arrived and
Eric put the parcel into his briefcase. He winked at me, "Something
I need for the museum," he said, and I knew from his expression he
would say no more about the parcel.
Eric and I finished our lunch and decided to walk along the wharf. It
was slightly overcast and a little too windy for me. I buttoned up my
coat; glad I'd remembered to bring it. The seagulls, unperturbed by the
wind, squawked at us, scavenging food. We had none to give them.
"But Eric," I continued our conversation, "even if the
map's rediscovery was engineered by some international conspiracy carefully
placing all the players in the right spot at the right time, none of it
helps the authenticity debate. It wouldn't matter to a conspirator if
the map was genuine or not."
"Exactly, but it would help. They'd expect to have the map scrutinised
"So if it's a fake it has to be a clever fake."
Eric nodded. "One made by an expert in old maps, someone,"
Eric took his time to finish his sentence, "someone like your father."
"Stop it!" I wasn't sure why, but Eric's continued suggestion
of my father's involvement in all of this annoyed me.
"Okay! Okay!" He deflected my annoyance. "One thing that
does trouble me is the way the experts at the British Museum, Skelton
and his lot, changed their minds. When the map was first presented to
them, when Davis sent it over for its first examination, they declined
to give it the Okay. But later, when Yale called them in they were only
too ready to pronounced the map a genuine article."
"Do you think they were bought?"
"I'm not sure. It's possible. I can't see Skelton's crew accepting
an ordinary bribe, but maybe they might have been convinced by some idea
of loyalty to their country."
"For Queen and empire!" I laughed.
"Let's not get too carried away. You can only buy so many people.
A map purporting to be the first map of America will eventually undergo
some independent examination."
"Or," I thought out loud, "some examination from the
opposite camp. The Cold War was alive and hot at the time."
"Mmm." Eric was looking at a tug that was heading out to the
main wharf, even in the dirty canal water its wash generated quite a beautiful
white spray pattern. "If it was rediscovered to drum up anti-Italian
feeling then it really didn't matter if it was a forgery or genuine as
long as it could hold out for say two or three years as the real thing."
I agreed. My own library searches had found a number of articles in
scientific journals debating the various outcomes of scientific tests
on the map. Tests had been carried out on the vellum, the ink, and the
mapmakers initial guiding lines under the ink, but none of it had been
conclusive. For every finding there was a counter claim. One laboratory's
conclusions were quickly refuted by another. I found it a tiresome set
of articles dealing with ink particles and molecular structures and somehow
I wasn't surprised by its inconclusiveness.
I had rarely found scientific evidence of much value in historical cartography.
I wasn't sure why, perhaps our questions were too precise for science
which, in spite of its publicity, is just not a precise discipline. Science
deals in approximations and statistically likely results. The real world
of time and substance defeats it. It was just like Eric's *, a simple
enough idea, the number always derived by dividing the diameter of any
circle into that circle's circumference. And yet it eludes science still.
We can use our mathematical calculations for the business of a square
and know we will generate precise results. But the circle? That's another
matter. Our calculations are always, even slightly, inaccurate. Only the
mandala can turn the square into the circle, the circle into the square.
Suddenly a flash of purple caught the edge of my eye and I turned sharply.
I thought it was the old woman's hat. But it had gone, as quickly as it
had appeared. I felt uneasy and I realised the old woman's chant was sitting
at the back of my thoughts, troubling me.
For a time, Eric and I walked in silence until we had reached the end
of the wharf and he turned to me. "Tell me your stories? Tell me
about the far-fetched cases in the discovery of maps? There has to be
others. Tell me the stories that make the Vinland Map look straight forward,
normal. Isn't there a story about a map that turned up in a shop?"
"A butcher's shop. Yes, the Cantino Map." Eric was right.
He needed to place the Vinland Map into its own history. When we isolate
something, it can seem a lot more fantastic than when it sits in its natural
surroundings. How marvellous the igloo looks, how ordinary and commonplace
it is to the Inuit people. How strange the old worshipping of trees and
yet how ordinary to bring one into the house and adorn it with garish
trinkets at Christmas time.
I told Eric some of the more fantastic stories in the history of maps.
"The butcher," I began, "was using the map as a screen.
He claims to have found it and thought it a curio, he had no idea of its
value. It's quite a wonderful story, almost as good as the Vinland Map.
But the story goes back much further than the discovery in the butcher's
shop. It was the beginning of the 16th century, a time when maps were
not freely available and the possession of a reliable one of the known
world meant a great deal of money to merchants and governments alike.
I guess they were as much contraband as drugs are today."
I thought of the seaman who came up to Eric in the cafe, his nervousness,
his hoarse whisper and Eric's delight at the parcel. I knew Eric well
enough to know he wasn't dealing in drugs, but I was also quite sure that
what he carried in his briefcase, what was wrapped so clumsily in newspaper
and twine, was both of great value to him and not quite legitimately gained.
"Imagine," I suggested to Eric, "that we had just been
sitting in a tea house in medieval Portugal, one on the docks perhaps.
Up comes an old seaman, he's just got off a ship, he'd been sailing with
Diaz. You've arranged to meet him and he comes over, a bit embarrassed
that you're not alone. He hands you a parcel; you don't open it but quickly
hide it under your cloak. You hurry away, or maybe not. Maybe you stroll
up and down the wharf talking to a friend, just in case the King's men
are watching you."
Eric blushed. "That's not how it is..."
I laughed, "I'm teasing you, but you get my drift. In the parcel
I'm talking about is a copy of Diaz's charts. Maybe not all of them, that
would be asking too much, but enough, enough to guess at some of the other
sections. You take it back to your cartographers and they work through
the weeks, putting together the pieces. You've got other spies out working
for you as well, hanging about the popular drinking places, catching gossip
and snippets of stories from drunken sailors. All of this is collated.
As the map takes shape the spies are given specific tasks, to find out
about what happened after the ship left the sight of land, or rounded
a particular cape. It's a jigsaw of course and a lot of chance and cunning
is involved but at the end you have a map of..."
Eric interrupted me. "It's a paleochestes bone, well I hope it
is." He explained, feeling obviously uncomfortable.
I gave him a quick hug. "Of course it is..."
He shifted from one foot to the other, obviously still a little uncomfortable.
I continued, feeling that perhaps I had taken my tease a little too far.
"The possession of a map or chart meant the possession of very valuable
knowledge. Diaz and the period of great Portuguese navigation is a case
in point. Access to the map room of Prince Henry the Navigator was almost
impossible to any but the chosen. Those cartographers, scribes and librarians,
at a cost of death, were bound to secrecy. In many ways, Prince Henry's
maps were of more value than his jewels. The map room was the most secret,
most guarded part in his kingdom. Well," I hesitated, "his compass
was surrounded by a fort. But that's another story."
I continued. "Imagine the intrigue, the espionage, the secret dealing
and bartering that must have taken place. It's the stuff of boys' adventures
and buccaneering movies!"
Eric agreed but suggested it was probably not all together unlike the
current industrial espionage or computer hacking so often talked about.
I told him the story of the Cantino Map. "Alberto Cantino was an
Italian in the employment of the Duke of Modena, Erole d'Este. The Duke
could see the enormous trade advantages in owning a map of the known world,
and he financed his employee in a daring and fantastic adventure. Cantino
went to Portugal, where in Lisbon he disguised himself as a horse-dealer
and as such made his way untroubled about the city. He eventually came
across, probably in some alehouse, one of the Portuguese Map Room cartographers
who, for whatever reason, was prepared to copy a map for Cantino. None
of this happened overnight. Cantino would have had to stalk his man, possibly
blackmail was involved. We don't know, the cartographer was never caught
and remained anonymous. It must have been enormously risky, so the stakes,
whatever they were, were high."
"I guess everyone had a price."
"Yes, it's interesting but it's probably true. Especially if we
think of other incentives besides money." I knew I too had a soft
underbelly. If someone threatened the children in my life, I'd commit
any number of crimes to protect them. I continued with the story. "The
cartographer copied the official mappa mundi, the Padraõ,
which was the standard map of the world. It was the map that all new information
and discoveries were added to. It was of course constantly changing and
what was copied was not the most up-to-date version." I wondered
if that eased the conscience of the cartographer, made his crime a little
easier to commit, a little easier to live with.
"It was no mean feat to smuggle out the map as the copy was done
on parchment, a bulky and noisy material, and the security was meant to
be the best in Europe. There must have been quite a bit of money used
in bribes. It's my guess that at least one of the guards must have been
in on the deal. No doubt, they all appeased their consciences by knowing
they were only copying the standard map and were not giving away anything
too new or precious. But, as I've pointed out, even this standard map
was still closely guarded secret information.
"Cantino put his name to the map and in haste and secrecy it was
sent to the Duke. It arrived at Modena in 1502."
"And the butcher?" Eric asked.
"For three hundred years or so the map had an uneventful life and
stayed in the library of the successive Dukes. Obviously over time it
became a curio and just part of the library's collection. But in 1859,
in the middle of the Modena riots it disappeared. Most thought it had
gone in one of the fires, but quite miraculously it re-emerged in the
back section of a Modena butcher's shop nine years later."
"Quite. But I don't know that it was found so innocently as the
story would have us believe. After nine years the butcher or his mates
probably thought they could claim to have discovered it and reap some
kind of reward. I mean, in the middle of the 19th century what kind of
person is likely to have both been in the back of a butcher's shop and
been able to recognise the map?"
"Unless it was a priest or a doctor?"
I agreed, they were about the only professions which travelled equally
across libraries and butcher's shops. Whether we like it or not, most
of us stay well within our cultural and class boundaries.
"There's another map at about the same time which is also quite
interesting, although its story is less romantic." I told Eric of
the Pesaro Map, the first map to use the term Mundus Nova, the
New World, and how in compiling the new world it drew on almost all the
known evidence about America which was available in Europe before 1510.
The map was interesting because it combined information from the lost
drawings of John Cabot and the charts of the Portuguese navigators, Gaspar,
Corte-Real and Fernandes. All of this knowledge the Pesaro Map added to
the conventional maps of the time. It was probably the very map Cantino
wanted, but not the one he got. It's interesting to speculate that Cantino
might have had a hand in the theft of this map as well, but that's pure
"It's at the right time, did it turn up in Italy?" Eric asked.
"Yes, it's named after the Italian town where it was re-discovered
by a marchese, Santinelli. Still," I looked at Eric, "we can't
get too carried away with these romantic speculations. It wasn't re-discovered
until the late 19th century. The first time the map was displayed was
in 1881 at an international Geographical Congress. Like the Vinland Map
there is almost 500 years missing in its history. Of course various efforts
were made to establish its provenance but, like our map, it has also defeated
"Does it have the same cloud of forgery hanging over it?"
"No, probably because less is at stake. If the Vinland Map hadn't
pre-dated Columbus there wouldn't have been anything like the fuss."
I was getting a little chilled and so we made our way to a section which
looked as if it was out of the wind.
"But all of this," I continued, "is child's play when
compared to the really big story of medieval espionage." I had consciously
kept the best story until last. "A sensational scandal broke out
just after Diaz had returned from navigating the Cape of Good Hope. At
the time, 1488 to be precise, King John was on the throne of Portugal
and his security in the Map Room was as good as any of his predecessors.
Diaz knew his charts were extremely valuable both to him and to the King."
"He was paid well?" Eric asked.
"More than that. No King was going to finance further journeys
if the captain couldn't keep his information secret. Diaz took particular
care no idle seaman copied them on his voyage. They were locked securely
away in his cabin and on arriving back to Lisbon, in December, he personally,
and under guard, took his charts immediately to the Map Room. Imagine
how valuable Diaz's new charts were. For the first time he had rounded
the Cape of Good Hope, he carried the route to the Indian Ocean."
We found a bench out of the wind and sat down. The cafe was close at
hand but neither of us felt like going back into it. Eric joked with me
that I might need a cup of tea but I ignored him. I continued "Everything
should have been secure but within months, in 1489, a map was produced
in Italy, the Martellus map, which contained not only the details of Diaz
exploration but his full nomenclature as well. Indeed, even today, the
Martellus Map is the best description of the Diaz journey; a far fuller
map than anything produced by King John's cartographers. The Portuguese
security had been broken.
"It caused a sensation in all the courts across Europe. Breaking
the security of the Map Room was a bit like robbing the Reserve Bank's
vaults. Some places just define security. If they tumble everything else
seems to, nothing is safe."
"So how was it done?"
"Paper. The invention of paper." I explained. "The problem
for the thief was of course the size of the maps. Originally, if an illicit
copy was being made of a map the scribe would copy sections of the map
on small pieces of parchment and later paste them together. But parchment
is noisy and cumbersome and the guards were on the look out for this.
The invention of paper made life a lot easier. Paper, you see wasn't nearly
as noisy. Certainly, the copier had to be a well-known and trusted member
of the map room's staff even to get access to the maps. But once that
was achieved, the invention of paper made it a lot easier for sections
to be copied hurriedly and hidden in the thief's clothing. Over a couple
of months an entire map could be copied."
"Was it money or politics?" Eric asked.
"Perhaps a little of both. Christopher Columbus left Lisbon in
1485 and went to Spain to try his luck finding patronage in the Spanish
Court. His brother, Bartholomew, an expert cartographer, stayed in Lisbon
working in the Map Room. He was making a large map of the world based
on existing knowledge and the new charts. It was an official project and
he was in and out of the place, and of course, had access to all the newly
arrived charts. At the beginning of 1489, just after Diaz had returned
to Lisbon with his charts of the African coast, Christopher Columbus fell
into very hard times. He called on his brother for help. Both men, you
must remember, knew the value of maps."
"And how to draw them." Eric added.
I nodded. "Bartholomew Columbus knew only too well the value of
his work and the kind of money he could raise if he copied the secret
maps and charts of the Map Room. He set to work using paper which was
quieter than parchment. That was the genius of the man, the quietness
of the paper. And because he knew what he was doing, he didn't need to
make spotless copies. Later in Spain, with his brother Christopher, he
could draw the charts again, this time elaborately and on parchment. He
copied and sold various secret charts in this fashion and both he and
his brother recovered from debt."
"And the Martellus Map?" Eric asked.
"Yes, his greatest achievement. Bartholomew Columbus simply pasted
together the paper copies he'd made in the Map Room. All Martellus did
was draw a border around the edge and lend the map his name. Martellus,
an Italian cartographer was little more than a front man. He was a minor
cartographer known more for his decoration and painting than for his cartography.
His only other contribution to mapmaking that we know of, is a very beautiful
folio of island maps. Martellus was commissioned to produce the maps not
because he had any great skill as a cartographer but because he
was so skilled at the decorative script fashionable in Italy at the time.
What he produced of course was a medieval coffee-table book. His island
folio was about decoration and beauty, not seafaring maps of the world.
The folio is a far cry from the marvels and precision of the Martellus
Map, arguably one of the greatest maps of the world drawn in that century."
Eric leant back. He'd enjoyed my story. "Those Columbus brothers
had a lot to answer for."
"Maybe more than you think. What is really interesting for us,
is that the Martellus Map, that is, the original one traced onto sheets
of paper and then glued together, is held in the Yale University Map Library.
It was anonymously donated in 1963."
"And there was an anonymous donor who purchased the Vinland Map
from Witten and donated it to the same library, to the Yale University
Map Room." Eric let out a low slow whistle. "Amazing how it
all fits together, like bones of a prehistoric animal, bit by bit the
whole paleochestes takes shape."
All the talk of forgeries had brought me back to my father's copy of
the Vinland Map. Why had he kept a facsimile which didn't include the
wormholes? Was it that my father wanted to view the map as it was first
made? Neither Eric could make anything of it. "The point is Eric,
it's on good vellum. Such a curio you think he'd have drawn on something
The sun was getting low and the activities of the wharf had changed
making ready for the night. Boats were being secured and the sky, now
grey, looked menacing. Another tug had pulled up just by our bench and
was shutting down its engine. We stood up and made our way slowly towards
the car park. I was glad to make my way to the warmth of my car.
Gabbett had made a time to see me. He had sounded cautious on the phone
and had asked me not to tell Crete. The secrecy made me feel awkward.
"I'm worried, Meridian. She's drinking too much and..."
"The other night was my fault."
"No, at home. Wherever. It's not just that night." He pushed
his coffee cup away. "There wouldn't be a week without her having
a hangover, having to spend the day in bed."
I had no idea. I reached out and touched his hands. "Is there something
you want me to do, talk to her?"
"I'm not sure. I feel bad about talking to you behind her back."
So did I and I was glad Gabbett mentioned it. The waitress came and
removed our cups, wiping the table as she chatted away to us about nothing.
When she left I dropped my voice and said "Gabbett there are things
in her life that frighten me. You need to talk to her."
He took his time before he spoke and when he did, he sounded nervous,
apprehensive. "I think you better tell me."
"I don't know much. She keeps lots to herself and just every now
and again, there's something. I don't have a clear picture."
"Just what you know - anything."
I went to the counter and ordered a couple of clarets, a good strong
earthy wine. If I was to tell him anything of what I knew we both needed
"She told me a story once, I've never forgotten it." I took
a gulp of the wine. "It was when she was with her last husband, the
violent one. They'd had a fight and he'd bashed her, ripped her clothes
off her, and in a rage stormed out of the house. She came to and found
herself sitting in the dark, in the far side of her bedroom. Probably
she'd passed out or been knocked unconscious..." The story was hard
to tell, and it was hard to listen to. We both needed to take our time
I continued. "She came to, and as I said, she was sitting on her
bedroom floor, all bunched up like a child, her clothes torn and hanging
loose. It was dark now and she saw a light coming down the hall towards
her. It shone into the bedroom. It looked like an eye, a single bright
eye at the door of her bedroom. It was a torch of course, held by a policeman.
By his side was a woman police officer. They heard Crete and turned on
the light. They were kind enough to her, got her clothes, to a doctor,
made her a cup of tea, that sort of thing. But she told me, and this is
what really frightened me. She told me the worst was not the beating he'd
given her, the bruises or the ringing in her ears, the torn clothes or
the soreness in her shoulder. The worst was the fact that two strangers
had just been able to walk into her house and find her like that."
I looked at Gabbett. "She said, That's what being a victim really
is, forgiving him for bashing you but not forgiving him for letting strangers
into your world." As I spoke those words I could picture her,
hear her voice, see her resolve. I could hear her laugh about it, make
light of it, as if the past was another place and she could escape it
by living in the here-and-now.
"Can you handle that, Gabbett?"
He didn't know.
We talked for a little longer and then parted. I agreed not to tell
Crete of our conversation although I did say I'd tell her we had coffee.
I wasn't prepared to lie to her about Gabbett. Once again, I had warmed
to him. I like his concern for her and his own doubt. Perhaps, I thought,
this time Crete had found someone worth loving.
* * *
Francisco was, as usual, in his library. As I entered he rose and stepped
towards me, holding out his hands. Once the door had closed he kissed
me with affection. "You have been a few weeks, I thought I might
have frightened you." It was a question rather than a statement.
I shook my head. But yes, I was a little afraid. I needed time to think.
The space between us had narrowed and I wasn't sure if that was what I
I had brought with me my father's facsimile of the Vinland Map. "It's
the one I told you about, it has no wormholes."
He was pleased that I'd eventually brought it to show him. Earlier I
had brought my own copy but he'd been disinterested and asked again and
again if I had another, one on vellum.
He cleared a surface on the smaller of the desks. There was an awkward
silence between us and I unfolded the vellum, the noise of it seemed louder
"Ah yes." He said almost to himself, and he handed me a pair
of white cotton gloves. I was immediately reminded of my father's ritual
and must have looked curious because he added, "A habit, do indulge
He seemed pleased with the copy and he bent over it, tracing some of
the lines of the map with his gloved fingers. Breaking the awkwardness,
I stood close to him, as close as an intimate would stand, and he looked
up and smiled at me. Then, as if my closeness was the most natural thing
in the world, he gave his attention back to the map. I looked at his hands;
his fingers trace over the map as if the map was Braille, as if by touch
he could re-associate himself with something familiar.
"It's such an interesting pastiche. No wonder it fascinates you,
it has fascinated people for a long time. Can we take it for the time
being that this is not a forgery?"
He smiled at me. "Good. Now look here," his hand moved to
the area east of mainland Asia. "These islands, information about
them must have come from the Mongol Empire. It must have come all the
way to Basel." He looked up at me and then down at the map. "What
I see here is the excitement of the Council, I see the excitement and
intrigue that must have invaded Basel. Can you imagine what a great Church
Council would have been like? Clerics, and monks, and deputations from
heads of state, princes and marquise and scholars who had come from the
far parts of the earth. Ideas from all over the known world. And from
the past, from the Greeks and Romans. Translations, music, spices. Imagine
the streets and corridors, the different dress, the accents, the colours.
The exchange and sale of information, traded in the markets like any other
commodity. And someone had come with information about the far reaches
of the Mongol Empire. It's all here." He tapped the map. "They
knew about the islands of Japan. Look what our cartographer called this
sea, the Great Sea of the Tartars. And then the legend," he translated
as he read, 'the Tartars affirm beyond doubt that a new land is situated
in the outermost parts of the world. Beyond this land is only ocean.'
So here, quite literally, was the edge of the world."
His voice was more animated than I had heard before. "And here,
look at the medieval confusion over Prester John, placing this little
outpost of Christianity, or at least something very like Christianity,
in Africa. But you know," his attention was caught by the other side
of the map, "I find the details in the Atlantic the most interesting."
He took off his glasses and cleaned them. "The Council of Basel
must have had a delegation from the North, perhaps from Iceland. The cartographer
must have had access to the Old Norse sagas. It's quite fascinating isn't
it, how these maps evolved. How sometimes charts were copied and other
times stories were drawn. Yes, stories shaped whole landmasses. The cartographer
traced not science but the human imagination. And it's all here Senora,
all of the talk and the activity of Basel."
I enjoyed his absolute delight and wondered now at why I had waited
so long to bring this map to him. Was it something about the vellum, I
wondered which made the map more real to him than those carefully constructed
images in my books.
His attention was still caught by the map's depiction of the Atlantic.
"It's interesting isn't it, how untidy the map is here. Compare the
Atlantic to the tidiness of the islands of Japan and the Great Tartar
The islands to the east almost completed the curve of the European-Asian
landmass, but the Atlantic islands were scattered about almost randomly
in the sea. It was as if the Atlantic Ocean closely resembled the actual
world, but the Tartar Sea islands were drawn to provide balance. Francisco
was right to point out the oddity of the Atlantic, it would have been
a far more usual practice if the islands had been placed in the ocean
forming some kind of shape or pattern, or perhaps in a way which offered
some kind of counter balance to the whole design.
It was not, I knew, the usual methods of a medieval cartographer, who
drew their mappa mundi as much to reflecting the divine order and
balance, the heavenly design of things, as to chart any navigational routes.
"That untidiness" Francisco continued, "tells us a great
deal. Either a chart was being copied or those islands, the Atlantic section,
were added to the map at another time."
"Do you agree with that?"
"Mmm, it is a theory." He hesitated trying to make up his
mind. "No, not at all Senora, maps were always drawn with the centre
of the world in the centre of the page. If the islands of the Atlantic
were not intended on the map then the whole of Europe would have been
placed to the left. The central axis would have been drawn somewhere through
Looking at the map, I suggested the Holy Lands as an alternative central
Francisco agreed. "The Holy Lands would be an acceptable centre,
after all, the Crusades were now part of the Church's identity, saving
Jerusalem and the Holy Lands had become an important aspect of life and
faith. But look, it's not the centre, mid Mediterranean is. No, the Atlantic
islands were part of the original map."
He let his body lean a little against mine, and said very quietly, "Would
you like a little wine Senora?"
I nodded. He didn't move and I was glad, I like the feel of him so close,
the gentlest of pressure against me. With Francisco everything was about
suggestion, everything was engineered to heighten desire.
Once again, he drew my attention back to the map. "It's very interesting,
these islands." I wondered if he was talking to himself or to me.
"They weren't added later, they are too messy to be drawn from stories
so they must have been copied from a chart. But which chart? The Norse
were always thought to use stories rather than charts to navigate their
way over the oceans, and I can't think who else would have navigated the
Atlantic but the Norse? It's a mystery Senora."
"The Arabs?" I suggested knowing almost nothing of their culture.
He shook his head and smiled. "The Arabs got sea sick in the Mediterranean!"
"They still invaded Spain."
"That they did Senora, they were fast on land. Such wonderful horses!"
His attention at last moved away from the map and I felt him lean just
slightly more against me. "Let us have that glass of wine together."
And this time he moved away to pour the familiar sherry. I took a deep
breath of air sucking in the space. I knew I wasn't thinking too clearly
and there was something important nagging at me. In all of Francisco's
conversation, in the way he read the legends, in the manner his hands
moved over the map, he was showing me it was not the first time he had
seen this map. Could he have seen the original in the collection at Saragossa?
He spoke as he brought the sherries over. "This map, you do realise
Senora, was not a work for God. It was a utilitarian copy, made perhaps
in a hurry. The scribe was a little bit amateurish." He pointed to
various mistakes that had been made in the Latin including in one case
a correction. "The mistakes are more in the European section of the
map. One would have thought that this monk at Basel was more familiar
with the European names. Look how the 'r' was left out of Prussia."
I stared at the map and the aroma from the sherry began to fill the
air. "Could it, " I wondered, "perhaps just be the cartoon
of a map? Maybe a copy for the black market?" I was remembering the
fantastic stories of the Portuguese Map Room.
"Yes, it is a very naked document." He took the sherry glass
to his mouth and let a few drops sit momentarily on his lips until he
moved them together, enjoying the taste.
I smiled. "The map." I said.
"Of course. And, you are probably right. I think it might have
been hurriedly finished. That would certainly account for the mistakes."
He changed the subject. "So, have you finished your translation
of the Tartar Relations?"
I nodded. "It sheds a lot of light on the names and legends of
Chingis Khan's empire, most of which is now Russia, China and India. The
bulk of the text tells the story of how Chingis divided his army into
three to conquer the entire known world. He took one army to march against
the people of the Caspian Mountains, a second army was sent towards India
and the other, the third great army under the command of his son, Jochi,
marched on the West.
"There were some really amazing stories about Chingis' adventures.
In one story, as Chingis and his army approached the Caspian Mountains
their spears and arrows began to tremble and move about in their sheaths,
the horses shied and whinnied. Nervous, the army marched on, alert and
watching for some strange enemy. As they came closer to the mountains,
everything that was made of metal, the arrows, swords, and spears moved
about so much that they made a terrible noise. Then quite unnaturally,
on their own propulsion, they flew from their sheaths into the air and
rushed towards the mountain. The braces, stirrups, and bites from the
horse harness and bridles, the shields, helmets and all the metal the
army carried, made off in a terrible and frightening racket. The heavier
pieces of metal, such as the helmets and shields, trundled along the ground
kicking up a cloud of dust while the other lighter object flew through
the air. Chingis and his army fled in terror leaving the people of the
Caspian Mountains unconquered.
"Another time, when they were in the north the army came across
a land with paths and footprints and all sorts of sign of humans but they
couldn't find anyone about. They made camp and waited. The Tartars, who
were sun and moon worshipers rose early, as was their custom, to give
homage to their sun god, but as the sun rose it caused the most terrible
and loud noise, ripping itself from the night. The men fell to the ground
crying out and covering their heads. Some found shelter in caves, but
many died of the terrible noise. Chingis marched his remaining army away
from that place, leaving the people, who lived underground, to their own
"There are lots of these marvellous stories but what fascinates
me is the story told by Jochi when he and his army returned. He told of
a place he called Unipedland, a place of one legged, one armed men who
could out-run the fastest Tartar horses and out-shoot their best archers.
So impressed was Jochi that he left these people to their own devices
and didn't try to conquer them. Just like the unipeds in the Norse stories
of Vinland, both were fast of foot, accurate with the bow and arrow, and
both were left unconquered.
"What I find quite extraordinary is that these two completely different
sets of people, the Norse and the Tartars, both had stories of a tribe
of one legged creatures." What is it, I thought, about the human
mind, that creates these images, these same symbols? How is it that our
dreaming invents a one legged creature who is faster than our horses,
faster than our fastest runner?
And what of the other mythical creatures? Are mermaids and snowmen,
are dragons and bunyips, are unicorns just part of the human daydream,
part of the human imagination? How could these two accounts, separated
by the divide of East and West, by the divide of land and sea, possibly
come up with the same creatures possessing the same unlikely attributes?
How could it be, I wondered, that one tribe of unipeds lived on Vinland
and the other somewhere in Eastern Europe.
I told Francisco of my father's stories of unipeds, of the unipeds in
the Norse sagas.
"What was it your father used to say about unipeds?"
"'I'm chasing the uniped.' It was a family joke, it meant something
like chasing dreams or doing something silly or impossible."
"How I would like to have known him better."
"Yes, me too." I thought of my father and the fun we had with
unipeds. And I let my mind play with his memory until from somewhere,
some part of listening that had slipped and needed time to penetrate my
mind, Francisco's words echoed around and around in my head: How I
would liked to have known him better. I repeated them aloud. Francisco
sat quietly and said nothing. He had, after all, said quite enough in
that simple sentence.
I left the map and went to sit in the chair next to his.
"You knew him?"
He shook his head. "No, I wouldn't say that. I met him. Perhaps.
He was the same, the historian of maps?"
"Yes. He had his own Chair..."
"Then it was he. I thought perhaps it must have been."
I wanted to shake Francisco; I wanted him to tell me everything, ever
single piece of information, every moment of their meeting. "But
where? When?" Was all I could manage.
"He came to the library, just for a short visit, a couple of days.
That's if I remember correctly, and I have been going through my diary."
Francisco digressed to explain. "When I realised there might be a
connection, I thought you would want to know as much as I could remember..."
"Well, it was an embassy who arranged the visit. I thought it odd
at the time because it wasn't the Australian embassy and he was an Australian
professor. Mind you, relations between the two countries have not always
been so friendly."
"Which embassy?" It didn't make sense. My father didn't work
for other governments.
"The American, the US embassy. I recall that distinctly as there
was a fuss, some importance was given to such a request. I felt at the
time it was a lot of nonsense. He could have written to me from his own
university and I would have given him the same courtesy and attention."
But why? Why the American embassy? "When was this?"
"After the war. A little after it, we had managed to clean up the
mess, already we had rebuilt the east nave and if I recall correctly we
were still waiting for the glass window to be repaired. So it must have
been..." He paused, "yes, before the theft, of course it was
before the theft. I'd say late in 1955, perhaps 1956. Does it matter?"
"You know it does!" Witten had been sold the map in 1957.
"What did my father come to see?"
Francisco spoke very softly. "You know, I cannot tell you that.
Perhaps I have told you too much already. The library's collection is..."
"Exactly." He smiled, "you remember?"
"The rose, the red rose? Of course."
"Leave it now, Meridian. You have brought this intriguing map to
show me. It is enough for an old man." It was the first time I recalled
him calling me by my name. "Come and tell me of your week. Let us
talk of the living, the landscape of men and women."
I looked out of the window. Outside the sun was drawing long, long shadows
on the grass. I knew soon it would be time for me to leave him. For some
unspoken reason I had never stayed after sunset.
Francisco poured fresh sherries and began to tell me his own story.
He used Latin.
The Eighth Mandala - Orientation
When I was a young man, in the library, I became fascinated by
a particular manuscript. It was not unlike your fascination with this
Every piece of time I could spare, and some I couldn't, I would
spend on the manuscript. I inspected every aspect of it. I knew the
watermarks of the vellum, the batch of vellum it had come from, the
parcheminerie, the scriptorium, the ink pigments, the nature of the
script, the corrections, the nature of the binding, the leather and
stitching used, the board, the... He laughed at his own memories
of his obsession.
Even, as you, the wormholes and the water damage, the this and
the that. There was nothing I didn't know about this manuscript. I
had translated the text into three languages, and I had compiled a
list of all the illuminations and borders. I was an expert!
One day my superior came into see what I was working on. He picked
up the manuscript and commented on how beautiful it was. He drew my
attention to an illumination of little importance; it was just a little
bit of border down the side of one page. There he pointed to a very
tiny white flower that, in spite of all of my scrutiny, I had not
noticed or paid any attention to. I was after all an historian of
such manuscripts. I wanted to uncover all the manuscript could tell
me of its history, of the various processes used to make it, of the
way it had been housed and used and how it had come to the library.
I wanted to know how difficult it was to keep the quality of vellum;
to find the exact pigment; of the events surrounding its making; of
the life of the scribe. But here was my superior drawing my attention
to a tiny insignificant white flower!
My superior, an old man, kept talking about the beauty of the
flower, and how I was blessed and privileged to have been directed
by God towards such a mission - to work on a manuscript of so great
a beauty. He knelt and asked me to pray with him. I gave chorus to
his prayers as was the tradition and then he left me feeling somewhat
bemused by this tiny white flower. He had not wanted to know anything
of my findings, of the life of the scribe, the herd the vellum had
come from, the war with France at the time. None of it.
I sat for some time staring at the illuminated border that had
so caught his attention. He had been so impressed with this tiny white
flower and the beauty of its depiction.
Francisco stopped talking and looked, not at me, but into some private
place, perhaps he could see the manuscript, feel the library and his
desk and the gentle afternoon light coming through the cathedral library's
windows. I had missed it. Completely missed it. I needed that old
man's myopic eyes to see not just the flower, but the whole manuscript.
All I had been looking at were facts and figures, pieces of vellum,
pigments of ink, stitches of binding. I had forgotten in my earnestness
that I was examining a manuscript, a total thing, a book, a book of
prayer and thanksgiving.
I had forgotten its wholeness, its beauty.
He paused for a moment. It was the beauty which mattered, which
really mattered, because that was what the manuscript gave to the
world. How the document came into being and all the other stories
were unimportant. They were like a mosquito buzzing around my ear.
I had become completely distracted by the mosquito and I could no
longer hear the great symphony.
I asked him if he thought I was so distracted.
I don't know. That's for you to decide. I know that after my
superior left I put away that manuscript and I only took it out one
more time. That was the day I left the library for the last time.
I took out the manuscript to remind myself of the beauty of that tiny
He paused and leant towards me, resuming English. "And now let me
enjoy your beauty as well."
He ran his fingers over the inside of my arm, pushing up my shirtsleeve.
His voice was little more than a whisper. "Your skin is so pale,
so white. I would like to see you naked, standing naked, from behind.
Would you take your clothes off for me? Would you show me your beauty?"
There in the library, in the dying afternoon light and the rows of books
I slowly took off my clothes for him. I did not strip; there was nothing
cheap or tacky about the moment. I simply, quietly, and in the gentleness
of that light, removed every part of my clothing and turning stood there,
wrapped only by his eyes, his breathing and the warm hush of the library.
Was it a fantasy I had always had? Since that first time I found a library?
Had I, even as a pubescent girl, wanted to stand like this, my white skin,
pale and curved among the warmth of the rows of books? I wasn't sure.
But I did know I felt at ease and comfortable. I felt completely and utterly
safe in my nakedness, as if I had discovered some terrain of innocence
I had not previously known.