Deakin University

 

Fragments of a Map

A novel [continued]

Tess Brady



13

It was my turn to call Crete, soft voiced and wanting company. She came around without delay and we sat in my kitchen. I was making pasta. It was probably the most involved thing I knew how to do in the kitchen and I wanted that - I wanted to play in my kitchen.

By the time Crete arrived, I'd kneaded the flour and egg dough and it was resting on the bench. It was a messy business and I'd managed to spill quite a bit of flour. I made a fresh coffee and Crete put on an apron to help out. She enjoyed, as I did, messing about with flour and threading the slabs of dough, again and again, through the press, until eventually they become paper-thin.

"What I like about this ridiculous business of making pasta," Crete said, "is the way I get myself covered in flour. I took pottery classes once, " she went on as she wound another piece of stiff dough through the press, "just so I could get messy with clay. I loved it!"

She chattered away filling the silence and waiting for me to find the words I wanted to share with her. There is no easy way to begin so I just blurted it out. Awkwardly, and in unconnected sentences I told her of Francisco, of how I had come to know him. I offered no explanation as to why I had not told her earlier, and importantly, I told her of his meeting with my father. "Eric has this idea about an international conspiracy." I explained, "he thinks my father was somehow involved and now it seems..."

"It doesn't seem anything." Crete interrupted what was a very confused and rambling account. "It's not the time to worry about Eric's conspiracy theories. Bugger theories! We're talking pure emotion here." She handed me a slab of dough. "It's your turn, that's vellum enough for you I take it." There is a stage in the process I particularly like, it's when the dough slabs resemble the texture and thinness of vellum sheets. As part of our ritual I am always the one to carry out this stage of the pressing.

I concentrated on the dough, taking slice by slice again and again through the press until each slice became long and thin, an almost transparent streamer of pasta. She helped carry each thin strip to the broom handle we'd suspended between two chairs. The pasta steamers hung on it, drying.

"What are you going to make?" She asked me.

I didn't know.

She laughed and hugged me. "You're in a bad way. Come on I'll help you, let's cook a feast. We need to make your house smell of cooking. It has to smell of basil and tarragon and oregano and parsley, loads and loads of parsley."

"One of your potions?"

She turned and looked at me. "A sure cure for love sickness is to cook. When I was so afraid of my coming relationship with Gabbett, more than once I found myself staring at an entire banquet and no one but me to eat it. It was really stupid. I think I just went into the kitchen and switched on automatic and began cooking." All this time she'd been sorting through the pantry and fridge working out what we'd cook with. "It's my theory that if a love affair is going well the fridge is either empty, or full of silly things like bowls of wine flavoured jelly and tubes of chocolate icing. That sort of thing. But if it's going badly the fridge and freezer is over brimming with curries and soups and..." she laughed, "elaborately made pastas."

"And how's your fridge these days?"

She shrugged.

"I had coffee with Gabbett the other day."

"Mmm, he said."

"He's worried about you."

"Is he?" She looked away from me. "It's really hard, you know. Living with someone again, day and night. I've got too many ghosts about the place...."

"Would he move into a flat?"

She shook her head. "No, I think he's really afraid of living by himself. There's something in his story. He talks sometimes about a flat, empty, with a fridge and nothing else. It sounds desperate, emotionally empty. It's an echo he can't go back to. Besides..."

She didn't complete her sentence. Instead she got on with cooking and changed the subject. She chatted about school days, about growing up, about anything but Gabbett.

It was good to cook, not to talk of the men, of Gabbett or Francisco, not to think about my father or Eric's theories or... Eventually the food was in the oven. We had over-done it and prepared an enormous meal. Crete, with my help, had made two different cannellonis, a meat one with plenty of parsley in the filling, and a cheese based version. On the meat dish, she poured a wine and tomato sauce while the cheese based cannelloni had a sauce made of cream and mushrooms and tarragon. We'd made a vegetable dish to go with it of zucchinis, tomatoes, basil and potatoes. It sat ready to go in the oven at a later stage. The food looked fantastic and the whole house smelt of herbs and cooking. Her potion had worked, I felt a lot better, a lot more focused.

"What I find the most difficult to grasp," I explained, "is the way the investigation of the map has become so personal, as if I've been..." I couldn't find the word. I wanted to tell her about the old woman in the purple hat. I spoke quite softly, perhaps embarrassed. "There's this old woman who chants and speaks in riddles…"

Crete looked up and caught my eye. For a moment her expression unnerved me.

I continued unsure of myself. "She's old, really old, and I keep dreaming about her. I'm not sure, but I think she came around here one night." I shook my head. "It's probably a dream. I don't know."

"What did she say?"

"Something about a diddle, riddle, something about a male calling, about the uniped. It didn't make sense then, I'm afraid it doesn't make any now. Maybe if I talk to her."

Crete shook her head. "They don't talk, not like that. Surely you know the rhymes: they know the songs, they throw the stones, the look after the children, they watch in the night."

"Crete, this is a real person, not some apparition. She's an old woman who for no good reason was carted away from out the front of my place. She wears a bright purple hat and…"

Crete, half laughing, interrupted me. "Sure, and she wanders through your dreams muttering riddles. Sounds like a flesh and blood pensioner to me!"

I shrugged. "I may be mis-remembering." I said limply, and tried to place the whole thing into the confusion I was feeling over the map. "It's just all this stuff about the map, it's getting to me. Crete, it's meant to be an academic exercise, it's meant to be out there, in my office, in the libraries, not here, not part of me ."

She didn't answer, but went to the pantry and selected a bottle of red wine. "Whose is this?" In one hand, she held the wine she'd selected for us and in the other she held up a bottle of cheap lambrusco.

"Eric brought it one night."

"I've heard its okay for dying your hair, something like that." She put it back. "I think about as much of his conspiracy theory as I do of his taste in wine." She pulled the cork and poured us both a glass. "Those arctic men." She shivered. "He's the only person I've ever met who actually enjoys salted fish."

We sat down at the kitchen table with the mess and smells of cooking all around us. It was domestic, it was good, and it was my space. Neither of us had any inclination to move.

I tried to defend Eric's theory. "It makes sense, how else would the map be re-discovered. I just feel awkward about my father's involvement..."

She cut me off. "Sure it makes sense, if that's what you want, and for that matter lambrusco makes a good hair dye if you want carrot red hair. I don't." She raised her glass. "Cheers!"

I wasn't following her and my expression made that clear.

"If I've got Eric's story right, it goes like this. The CIA or some other group decided they wanted to clean up the Mafia's power and their control of the labour movement in America. A whole list of things take place at once, one of them is the Kennedy committee, another is a bright idea to discredit the American Italian trump card, old Columbus himself. We're not sure as to the exact sequence or the exact players, but someone, maybe your father, maybe someone like your father, someone who knew the Norse stories and had heard about an old map, told them about the existence of the Vinland Map. He goes to Saragossa and inspects it, because he hasn't seen the map, only heard about its possible existence. He meets your Francisco, inspects the map and back at the embassy, the plot is hatched. Ferrajoli and his men will break into the cathedral library and steal a collection of manuscripts, one of which is the Tartar Relations with the map and the section of the Speculum . The long chain of coincidences begins."

I nodded.

"Now if your father had come to Saragossa as an innocent and just happened to be around at the same time as the embassy's professor, or Norse expert, or whatever, then that's another interesting coincidence."

I went to protest but Crete kept up her version of events. "I know, scholars were in and out of the place all the time. So why should Francisco remember your father above the thousands of other foreign scholars who asked to see manuscripts kept in the library's uncatalogued section? He had foreign scholars every day coming to inspect his old manuscripts.

"What made your father's visit memorable was not that he asked to see the Tartar Relations , with its accompanying map, don't forget it wasn't known as the Vinland Map then, it was just a mappa mundi of little value or importance illustrating aspects of the Relations . What made your father's visit important," she repeated, "is that immediately after his visit, or perhaps during it, arrangements were made to have certain manuscripts stolen from the library." Crete brought the point as close to home as possible. "Can you imagine if Martha was told this? If she had to assist in a theft of manuscripts from her collection? If she had to choose which one of her manuscripts were to be stolen so a group of embassy boys could play out some espionage plot. Can you imagine Martha sacrificing some of her collection so that the Tartar Relations and Speculum could be part of the theft?"

I couldn't see Martha, or for that matter Francisco coping at all well. The situation would have been abhorrent to anyone so concerned with the preservation of knowledge.

"And then, all those years later he meets you . You, the daughter of a man who could suggest such a thing to him. The daughter of someone who must have appeared to Francisco as a cross between a barbarian and a scholar."

I was thinking back now on each visit to Francisco's library.

"First he plays a game with you, all that stuff about the rose."

"No," I corrected her, "first he played the game of speaking in Latin."

"Yes, that's right. Only you were up to it. That must have surprised him. Then the rose.."

" Sub rosa ."

"Secret knowledge... but you still weren't put off. And what about that business with the sherry, all that waiting for the taste, for the right moment. It was another test but you got through that one too because, Meridian, you've always known how to wait. That's one of the things I've liked about you. You sit and take time, you think. You're not impetuous like me. I rushed into a relationship with Gabbett and now..." She cut herself short.

I touched her hand. "Now?"

She shrugged again. "Nothing. He's in Sydney."

"For how long?" My voice was a little too alarmed.

"No. Not for good. Well I hope not. For a couple of weeks. There's a program. There's always a program... it's just that his wife, his kids are in Sydney."

"He's seeing her?"

She nodded. "I think so. The kids were meant to come over for the half term break but suddenly that's cancelled and he won't talk about it." She toyed with her wineglass. "There's money stuff as well. But I guess there always is with a divorce." Crete cut us both a thin slice of cheese. "I hear things. He doesn't know the women's network. He doesn't realise we academic girls know each other. I'm more likely to know a woman from a history department in Sydney, or for that matter New York, than a woman from a science department at my own university."

"E-mail?"

"It's so easy, so quick. Gossip mixed up with work, gossip mixed up with contacts, gossip..."

"Maybe that's all it is." I tried to cheer her up.

"Yes, we'll talk when he's back. Maybe it's just my own insecurities coming out. Maybe I'm not being supportive enough. Who knows?" Suddenly she added, "You know I don't mind him being away. I like, well, the bathroom to myself. I can take my own time in the shower. I can talk to myself. I didn't realise until he was away this time how much I miss talking to myself!"

I knew what she meant. I'd always preferred lovers who lived a couple of hours drive away.

I got up to make a green salad. I dressed it heavily with my best olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar. As I put the bottle away, I noticed the vinegar was from Modena. I thought of the duke, the Cantino Map and butcher's shop. Odd, I thought, I'd not noticed it before.

Crete broke my thoughts. "You know, it must have been quite a shock to Francisco to, well...," she was trying to be delicate, "well, when he fancied you."

"I guess. It was quite a shock to me as well you know."

"Brave of him."

"What?"

"To tell you about your father."

She was right. It had been brave of him. I'd not thought of it that way. I was glad I'd turned to Crete and not to Eric, who would have fired me up with theories and dates and brought up too many memories of my father.

"Have you put in the vegetables?" Crete asked, knowing we'd both forgotten them.

We laughed and I put them on the top shelf of the oven, hoping they might not take too long. "We can have them after, or during or..." I knew it didn't matter.

I served the meal we had cooked together and over many hours, we ate even some of the vegetables.

Crete stayed the night; we had both drunk too much red wine for either of us to think about driving. When I woke, Crete was already up and had made coffee. She was in my study bending over the facsimile of the Vinland Map.

I liked the way she was completely at ease in my house. I went into the kitchen, the dishes were piled high on the sink and two empty wine bottles had been stacked by the kitchen tidy. Another one, re-corked, was sitting half empty on the bench. My head felt cloudy. I ran some water over the piled dishes. I could handle that job a bit later in the day but the pasta looked as if it was about to permanently stick to the plates. I poured myself a coffee, milky, sweet and strong. Just how I like it first thing in the morning. I went back to my study.

"How's your head?"

"Fine," she looked at me innocently. Crete was one of those early morning people who lack any understanding at all that some of us, especially after such a night, have brains that like to switch on slowly, gently approaching the day.

"It's such an odd map. I've been looking at it now for maybe an hour. If there hadn't been all that fuss about Columbus Day and Vinland I'm sure it would have stayed in, whatever library, virtually unknown except for a handful of scholars. And yet there is something quite fascinating about it. "

I drank my coffee. It helped, a little. Crete was ahead of me and I had to concentrate.

She ran her gloved hands over the facsimile, "Something is quite odd about this map. I think it's the water, the amount of water."

"I'm sorry?" Many people had been intrigued by the map; Eric had been fascinated with the way Greenland was shown as an island. Francisco with the islands in the Atlantic. The people at Yale by the Vinland continent, others by the depiction of Japan. I was, in my own way, interested in the nomenclature of the Tartar Empire; Witten had been intrigued by the wormholes; there were those who were interested in the legend relating to Prester John; in the nomenclature of Africa; in the way the bottom of Africa had been cut off; in the drawing of England as one island with Scotland well attached to the landmass. Many different things about the map had generated a number of papers and symposiums. I knew, I'd read them all. But I'd never heard of an interest in water.

"Look," She showed me, "the map fits nicely into the medieval view of the world, of how things were seen to be. It represents balance and design, two of their essential ingredients of life. It's teleology. There could be no doubt about the existence of God because as the master architect his existence is shown in the design of the world, in the balance and design of the physical world. It was just too perfect to have happened by chance. East and West, night and day, good and evil, dry and wet. Everything sits in balance and so too does this map." She drew a line with her finger. "Here is the East, the pagan side of the world, it belonged to the Tartars and evil, the devil. And here is the West, the Christian side of the world, it belonged to good and God."

I nodded. I knew the map represented a traditional medieval balance.

Crete continued. "But most of God's world, most of the good, is water. Now, don't you find that fascinating?"

"The islands?"

"No, more than that. It's extremely unusual for a medieval cartographer to map water. Land was the thing that was mapped. Water was shown as a kind of void in between the landmasses. You don't ever come across maps of oceans, not even the Mediterranean which would have been as familiar as you'd expect a sea to be to the Europeans."

"They couldn't, they didn't know how to map oceans."

"But this map balances earth with oceans and it claims that ocean, Mare Occeanum ?"

"Oceania Sea." I translated.

"Yes, the great Oceania is claimed for God, for Christianity. And here in the East the Great Tartar Sea is given to paganism and all that Tartary stood for." She paused, pleased with her interpretation.

"If I was working on this map," she continued, "I wouldn't give a toss what use was made of it in the 1950's, and I'd completely ignore the scientific ping pong on ink pigments and vellum scrapings. I'd think really hard about all this water. Whoever made this map was not your ordinary medieval cartographer because it wasn't your standard medieval mind. It's just not a medieval thing to do, to ascribe such a profoundly positive property to something like the oceans."

"Unless you come from an ocean going people."

"That's possible." She looked back at the map. "It's interesting how England's depicted, but look at the enlarged size of Ireland. Maybe it was an Irish monk?"

"Maybe. Certainly not English, the map doesn't show any of the English cartographic traditions. I think the English cartographers quite liked the idea of Scotland being separated by passage of water from the English mainland."

"Isn't there some joke about England?" She asked.

"Yes, 'a cartographer's mistake'." I didn't explain there were a few such labels. The 'cartographer's dream', the 'cartographer's nightmare', and the 'cartographer's joke', but they belonged to other countries.

Crete was close to a thought I'd had for some time. The mistakes in the legends around Europe had troubled me. But if the cartographer was an Icelandic-Irish monk then the European names might not have been so familiar and it would certainly explain the knowledge of the Atlantic. And there was, at the time, quite a bit of travel between Iceland and Ireland. Especially after both had been converted to Christianity.

"The trouble is," I drew her attention back to the Tartar Sea, "such theories don't explain the knowledge of this part of the world. The map is also the first depiction of Japan."

She shrugged. "More coffee?" And as we walked into the kitchen she said, "I'm glad it's not my research problem." And then added as an after thought, "There isn't anything else in your father's notes?'

There wasn't. I'd looked. I didn't bother to mention the newspaper clipping; it was not the kind of thing Crete would have been interested in.

Crete took of the white cotton gloves and put them on the side bench. "Are these new, "she asked, "they're in better nick than any I own?"

I went to answer her but something stopped me. Why had Crete used the manuscript gloves. The facsimile wasn't overly valuable or old? And when I thought of it, why had Francisco also used gloves? "Crete," I asked, "What made you wear those gloves?"

She misunderstood my concern. "I'm sorry, are they special or something?"

"No, not at all, but why? Why did you put on gloves, there's nothing precious about the facsimile?"

She looked at me and understood. "I did it intuitively. I did it because - oh my God - because its very old vellum."

I found another pair of gloves and within seconds we were back bending over the manuscript. I told her of Francisco's delight in viewing what I had always thought to be a curious copy of the map. "He kept asking if I had another copy, one on vellum, but because it didn't have the wormholes I thought it useless."

We both went into automatic mode - we were both skilled in documenting old manuscripts. Crete measured the piece of vellum and I set up the magnification table. We set the lights so that they'd cause the least damage and slowly began to inspect what I had always thought was a facsimile.

Magnified the lines of the map were clearly made by hand and here and there were visible the old graphite guide lines of the scribe. The inconsistency of the lines traced a nib fist full of ink and then running low. And in the legends it traced quite magically the pressure of the scribe's hand, heavy on the stroke of the h and light on the cross of the t .

I opened an atlas at the page of a printed copy of the map held in the Yale Library. Apart from the wormholes they should have been identical but now, on such a close inspection, there were slight variations. I scanned in the copy of the Yale version and adjusting as best we could for size, I printed out sections of it on overhead projector transparencies I used in my teaching.

Crete made some comment about having such a complete home office but I ignored her, I was too excited by the work. A scanner and a few transparencies hardly constituted a complete home office. Besides, I was thinking back on all Francisco had said, on how he had told me of the libraries scriptorium, what was it he said, 'they had done us a favour' - him and me?

Crete broke my thoughts. She had the transparency over the section of Upper Mongolia. "See, here, and also at this point, the lines are different. Mind you," she added, "it's a good copy." She pulled back and arched her back. We had been at work for a couple of hours and both needed more coffee.

Crete cleared away a space on the kitchen table and made the coffee while I hunted through my Vinland Map notes. There was something I needed to find. By the time I'd found the right article the coffee was made and felt fantastic. In all the excitement I had quite forgotten my heavy head. I put the newspaper clipping on the table for Crete to read. I was the one which had originally rekindled my interest in the map. While initially the scientific evidence claimed that the inks used in the Yale map were made from modern processes and thus the map was a forgery, later work on the samples doubted this finding. The doubt centred around the fineness of the particles. "Do you think, Crete, it is unusual for pigments to be ground so very carefully, so very finely?"

Crete explained how she needed to take time over her potions. "The medieval person was not in a hurry, when they say 'ground the ingredients together', they don't mean a few turns of the wrist with the mortar and pestle, they mean hours of grinding. It really does make a difference to how the chemicals react with one another. I don't doubt that the medieval monks would have ground their pigments as finely as any modern process."

My mind was working overtime. "So if I was going to make a forgery of an old map I could still grind up pigments and make inks which were not only faithful to the times but also finely ground?"

"Exactly. This scientific evidence isn't much use I'm afraid. It's also complicated by the fact that there aren't too many 15th century maps offered to laboratories as comparison. They have to scrap off sections of the ink to do these experiments and no one wants their maps damaged by that."

We both drank our coffee and the big question hung between us in the silence. Was the map in my study a 15th century map? Were there two Vinland Maps or was one, or both, a forgery?


14

I called Eric. He was like a kid at Christmas with the news Francisco had met my father and that the map in my study was probably a very old one or at least an old piece of vellum.

Eric, to my surprise, said he had always suspected that there was an old map in my father's papers. He was, for the moment, more interested in the meeting. I told him the detail I had and that the years fitted.

"But how did you know," I asked, "about the map?"

"There had to be more to those papers I translated. You do realise you could have another copy of the Vinland Map, I mean an original 15th century copy?"

"From the Council of Basel?"

"Or from the Cathedral, copied after the Council disbanded - something like that."

I didn't much like the thought of my father being involved in the kind of international plot Eric had built up in my mind, but I had to agree that it was looking decidedly like he had been right all along.

The newspaper clipping had provided fresh insights as well. The article which so prophetically predicted the Kennedys rise to power appeared in the New York Times exactly four weeks after the article on the Vinland Map. It was as if having scuttled the ship the newspaper now provided the hope of a lifeboat. The phone number of the clipping agency was surprisingly easy to isolate. The number no longer existed, but I could trace it as a Washington prefix. The cutting had been sent to my father by a Washington based, government newspaper clipping agency.

What was my father doing receiving cuttings from such an agency?

If only my mother could remember her life. I had tried. I'd visited her with my copy of the map. I've gone through photo albums of the right time, but she couldn't recall anything of my father's movements or his involvement in work. She remembered some of the friends they'd made in Greenland, some of the friends from the American base. There had been Christmas cards, I remember that, but there was nothing unusual in a few cards. I remembered I collected the stamps, always so different from ours.

I thought of my old stamp collection and went hunting for it. My mother was not one to throw things away and I was sure she'd have kept it somewhere. I found it, the old dark blue cover, a simple map of the world, but the album was smaller than I remembered. Collecting stamps now seems such an old fashioned thing for children to do, mine had not been in the slightest bit interested. My mother had collected and pressed grasses, I had collected and ordered stamps.

It was an unbalanced collection. There were, of course, a large number of Greenlandic stamps, some from Iceland and a few from England and New Zealand. The Australian collection was pedestrian and consisted of standard postage stamps with a few larger denominations and a good collection of special Christmas issues. But the American collection spread over pages. There were standard and Christmas issue stamps; special commemorative-issue stamps, as well as a large collection of high denomination stamps. I remembered my father would bring them home from his office. He must have had, by the look of the collection, quite a lot of documents which came via the post. There were also three U.S. presentation packs of mint stamps commemorating scientific achievements.

I shut the album and thought back to how the whole Vinland Map journey had begun, how in one of my father's books I had found a handful of papers written in Greenlandic translating an Old Norse story about the uniped. The papers had been slipped into what I'd thought to be a copy of the Vinland Map. They'd all been left in one of his atlases. But which one?

I went into the study and took down the book. It was a collection of old maps of Europe. The book opened easily at the page where the papers had been. On that page was a reproduction of Nicolas of Cusa's map of Germany.

The man who discovered air. I remembered Francisco's stories, of a man who preached a philosophy of expediency. Nicolas of Cusa had switched sides at the Council of Basel. His backing of the Pope was enough to turn the tables on those who wanted a more democratic church. The council was disbanded in a great panic and many fled with their papers and tapestries, their spices and ideas, as far away as possible from the reach of the Pope.

I shut the book and held it tightly against my chest willing it to reveal all of its secret. I thought of my life with my father, of the libraries and the books and the maps. I thought of his great unwavering love for me and my mother, of his quietness and reserve, of the ritual of inspecting his ancient atlases, of the stories of unipeds, and the way he delighted in my childhood fascination with Africa.

Sitting hugging the old book I felt an enormous wave of loss centred in my chest, like a great painful wound. I felt, more than at any other time in my life, so completely alone, not of friends, colleagues, or even of my own children's needs and gifts to me. No, this was something else. It was an aloneness which came from within me, from the loss of a father, from the loss of a mother, from the loss of a love unjudgmental and unwavering.

My father was dead, my mother needed care. I reminded myself of the facts and chided myself for such a burst of self-pity. I should let it go, let it become a cherished memory of halcyon days. Understand that such innocence is as temporal as the harvest moon - it fades so quickly in the night sky and becomes just a moon, just an ordinary moon. Just an ordinary life. My father just an ordinary man.

I thought of the similarities between my father's love of books and Francisco's love of his library. How could two men meet to discuss such a theft of manuscripts? It didn't seem feasible. What on earth could have convinced them both to agree to such a thing?

Suddenly, charged with action, I stood up and put the book back in the shelf. There were things I had to do. I listed them in my mind. I had to accept my father had another life, one I knew nothing about. I had to accept his involvement in various cold war activities. Eric had been right about that. I had to accept that somehow the two men were involved in the theft of the map and I had to accept that I had in my possession something very old and precious.

I knew I wanted to write a paper which drew a distinction between the map itself and what had been done with it, what it had been used for. Crete had been right about that. I knew exactly what I was going to write. I'd thought it all through as I had been sitting holding the book. I'd thought through quite a lot of things.

I turned on my computer and began.

* * *

Francisco's daughter-in-law smiled gently as she always did when opening the door and turned to lead the way to Francisco's study. Knocking as usual, she entered announcing my name.

Francisco, with some effort, rose to his feet. He looked deeply tired as if the effort of living, rather than some particular task, had weighed him down.

"Have I come on a bad day?" I asked, but the warmth of his smile and his strong grasp of my hand reassured me. He had set out the red glasses and his favourite bottle.

He poured two sherries, as he always did, and we talked.

"You know I can't answer such direct questions." Then added with wiriness, "If you want to talk of those times perhaps it is better we speak hypothetically."

"The little white flower, the one in your manuscripts?" I suggested.

He smiled. "So now you see."

"But how could two men who loved knowledge so much, who loved old books and precious manuscripts, possibly contrive to allow them to be stolen and used in such a deception?"

He told me a story of a librarian.

 

The Ninth Mandala - Legacy

One day the librarian received a message from the Embassy of a great power. They wanted him to work with a scholar of theirs on something quite secret. The librarian was of course very suspicious but when he met the scholar the two warmed to each other.

These were no ordinary times. The librarian had, only a few years earlier, felt frustrated by his position. It was during a period of terrible upheaval. First the Civil War and then the Second World War. His task, so often re-stated to him by his superiors, was to keep safe the documents, the secrets of the libraries. But all around him his childhood friends were being killed, or worse.

What good was it to keep alive knowledge if people were being slaughtered? As a librarian he knew his duty but as a man he felt useless, as if circumstance had castrated him, robbed him of action.

And so when this scholar came to speak to him the librarian was ready to listen. The scholar outlined a plan where books and knowledge were re-cast as bullets. It was a young man's plan full of daring and intrigue. The librarian had at last been called to arms. He could stand against those whose actions were motivated only by a lust for wealth and power. You see, the Mafia were not so unlike Franco's men.

But yes, you are right, neither the librarian nor the scholar could bear to risk the destruction of knowledge. And so they devised a plan so perfect only one thing could go wrong. It was something the librarian did not even imagine. Such was his keenest to act, such was his innocence of the world.

He stopped and taking his time added. "And so now, do you know what went wrong?"

I wasn't entirely sure but I thought I knew, at least part of it. "The scriptorium. The favour they did us?"

Francisco nodded but said nothing. I told him how I thought the story went.

"You and my father couldn't just let the map out, it was after all important, not because of any American pride but because it showed us the importance of the Norse sagas. It was a map of the sagas as much as it was a map of the Tartar kingdom. So you set about copying it. One of you suggested that you copy the map onto the leaf of an old and not very important scrap of the Speculum which had been bound with a version of the Tartar Relations . Neither of these were very rare documents and they had after all been damaged by worms. But you had the whole thing re-bound. Was that part of the favour? The fake 19th century binding of the two pages carrying the map and the Tartar Relations . The section of the Speculum was then bound independently. It wouldn't have been difficult. What was the Speculum bound in?"

"The same."

I smiled. "So the map which Witten had brought was always a fake, a map you and my father had made in the scriptorium in the 1950s. And the real map…" I stopped myself, something wasn't making much sense. "But why? Why not keep the map in the library? No one would know that it still remained in the uncatalogued section? Why give it to my father?"

"Indeed Meridian, indeed." His eyes were sad, moist and sad. "A foolish young man tried to make up for the death of his friends by grasping at the one action offered to him. My job was to preserve the secrets, keep the books, but Meridian, I let my passions distract me from my duty.

 

"My namesake, Suarez, the philosopher, did you know your English King James 1st had his works burnt on the steps of Saint Paul's Cathedral? Can you imagine what a passion the man must have stirred? Burning the text. It would have been such an extraordinary event."

I settled back in my chair and let Francisco take his time. He felt he needed to explain to me why he had become embroiled in my father's espionage. But curiously I didn't need his justification. Time and history invade us all, our actions cannot be judged in the too cold light of hindsight.

Francisco continued. "Suarez argued against the divine right of Kings. That upset your King James. The philosopher saw revolt against tyranny as a form of self-defence and he believed in the notion of a just war. Think of it Meridian, a just war." Francisco paused and reflected for a few moments. "There has, unfortunately, been terrible atrocities committed in the name of a just war. Saragossa has seen so many wars. So many just wars."

He paused for quite a long time and then added, but this time in Latin. "It is true what they say, our sins do live on to haunt us." He dropped his voice and almost to himself added, " Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. "

I spoke very softly. "They haunt, it's true, but you need not fear judgement - not from me." I had never set out to judge anyone, I had been curious, sucked into the story by the same curiosity which had, all those years ago, lead me to pilfer my father's study for my own birth certificate. My passions had also taken me to - shall I call it sin? "None of us are free of guilt, you know that."

I took my time to speak again, I needed to give Francisco time to change his mood, even a little, because there was one last detail I needed to be clear over. "So my father, double crossed you? He stole the real map? That's the one I have?"

Francisco took my hands in his. "And now this old man will die having at last found what it is he lost. We come full circle."

We talked a little more of Suarez's political philosophy and then he leant over, his eyes and mouth close to mine, and said, "But all of this is for the young. If I am honest I am now more concerned with the questions of eternity."

I touched his lips with my finger. At first his face remained motionless, and then slowly he moved his lips, just a little, so that their moisture infected my finger. Then, as if he had changed his mind, his hand came up to mine and firmly, gently took my hand away from his face. "I want to ask you," he said, "if you believe in God?"

I was a little surprised by his question. We had spent months talking about manuscripts and libraries and ideas and philosophy but never had he talked of any religious conviction. I was careful with my reply. "I believe in the gift of life. And you?"

Our faces remained very close and we were almost whispering. "Yes, I like what you say," he used the Latin, ' vitae donum ', 'the gift of life'. I too find it difficult to be more precise than that. Elaborate concepts of heaven, purgatory and hell I find awkward, the clutter of tired frightened minds. If an old man wants the comfort of an afterlife, he must also accept the awkwardness of sin. It seems a heavy price to pay."

"Perhaps," I suggested, "a better word than 'sin' is 'despair'. Sin is just the humanness of life, despair is another thing, it is the place where we lose all hope, we lose that gift of life, we lose light itself." I remembered, as I spoke, the darkness of my own despair, the times I had felt it, become lost in it. " Do not go gently into that good night. "

"Ah yes, the Welsh poet. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. But, Senora, all of us must die sometime or other. Do we end there, does the light end there?"

I didn't like to hear him talking of death, I feared his death. I feared our age difference. I feared time. I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the reality of his words. Death had taken too much love from me.

He touched my hair, letting his open hand rest at the back of my head. "But we are just talking philosophy Senora, we are talking about the nature of being. Why are you upset when we just talk of Suarez's philosophy?"

I opened my eyes and saw his, moist - moist with knowing and the pain of the inevitable. I took a deep breath. "Yes," I said without conviction, "we are just talking philosophy."

After some time he said, "I would like to make love to you," he paused, "in a certain way." His hand caressed my nipple and I felt a heat at the back of my neck and down my spine. "You will remember Senora. I hope, you will remember."

The air felt heavy. "And are we still talking philosophy?"

He leant back and smiled, withdrawing his hand from my breast. He took his time to talk; his voice was firm and authoritative, firm and reassuring. "I want you. I want you with the fury and speed and arrogance of youth. I want you with the nervousness of the timid boy, new to the touch of a woman's skin. I want you with the tenderness of the bridegroom; I want you with the furtiveness of the lover. I want you with the drunkenness and clumsy hands of the middle aged man who comes in the night, full of guilt. I want you with the sophistication of the experienced lover, with the shielded and measured passion of one who sleeps with a different woman every night and who is afraid of the experience of repetition. I want you as the priest who prays for forgiveness to the virgin. I want you as the poet who partitions your inner door with the meter of his desire. I want you as the general for the spoils of war, as the king who needs you as solace for the lives he has taken in war. I want you as the lunatic, needing comfort from the fear of night. I want you as the captain who sails his boat in your wondrous harbour. I want you as the philosopher who searches for a soft receptacle for his harsh theories. I want you as the father, the son, the brother, the friend. I want to take you as all of men."

His desire gave him energy and he came at me with the flurry and passion of a boy. He pulled and tugged at my clothing undressing me in too great a hurry until we were both naked, our clothes strewn around the library.

Then, as if his energy had spent he slowly walked with me to the small anteroom and there caressed and gently kissed my body, slowly, lovingly, calmly.

And then, suddenly, quickly, roughly, again the mood swung around and he pulled my legs wide apart and pushed and shoved his tongue deep into my vagina. His hands rough on my legs, pushing them wider and wider apart hurting, his tongue deep in me, licking rubbing, filling me. My body writhed in spasms of enormous pleasure and pain. I cried out, I pulled on his hands trying to loosen their grip, I pushed myself onto his face, his nose pressed against my clitoris. The soft. The strong. The gentle. The rough. Confusion.

Then suddenly, again his energy changed and he let go of my legs and withdrew his tongue, lapping and licking my clitoris in soft even strokes. I gasped and pushing his face against my belly I came and came in spasms and contractions, in jerks and convulsions.

I fell back on the sheets exhausted but it was not over. He rolled me on my belly and ran his fingernails over and over my alive back and spine, over my bottom and my thighs. Aroused, gasping, holding back my orgasm until he pushed his fingers into my anus, I called out and he kissed me, filling my mouth with his tongue, deep into my throat. Grabbing my hair he pulled my head back until my scalp stung and my back arched - tongue, fingers, mouth, anus, hair. I collapsed, sweating, hot, thirsty.

He rocked me and sang to me. He stroked my breasts and my hair, and soothed me. He cooed and held me gently as a lover, protecting me from the nightmares of life. He clung to my breast as a child might, searching for life itself. He took my face to his penis and I suckled, licking his balls and stroking the opening to his anus. I kissed his armpits and his back and his stomach. And we rocked and wept in each other's arms.

I do not know how long we made love like this; time had been left in another place. Exhausted, he raised me to slide down upon his erect penis and we finished with him inside me, his face and neck muscles straining, tensing, in the pain and joy of his orgasm. He called out - a deep, rich sound; a male sound; a sound which came from his very essence, from his maleness. I fell back covered in his sweat and we slept until noises in the house disturbed us. The light had completely faded.

Sleepily he stroked my hair and I kissed him. He tasted warm and of sleep and peace. I moved, meaning to rise and dress, feeling I had overstayed my time with him, but he placed his arm upon my shoulder and gently pulled me back to nestle into his warm body. "Stay with me through this night," he whispered.

Later, when the noise in the rest of the house had quieted and we were awake with thirst and hunger, he left me for a short time and came back carrying a platter of cold chicken, bread and sliced rings of peeled orange. He had a bottle of cold red wine, Boujelaise style, and a couple of glasses. "Are you as hungry as this old man?" he said, mocking himself as he always did.

The simplicity of the meal seemed exactly right. We sat on the edge of the cot and ate, feeding each other. Francisco put a little chicken in my mouth. It had been cooked in some way unfamiliar to me. It tasted slightly piquant, the tang of mustard and juices and olives and thyme. And then the sweet bitter taste of orange, refreshing the palate, and more chicken and more orange. We dipped our bread in the cold red wine, and laughed and talked and ate as intimately as we had touched. The wine cooled my mouth hot and dry from lovemaking. I gulped at it, thirstily.

Safe in his arms we slept and talked until the dawn's early light and the first call of the birds. It was a night I will often remember. I felt completely at peace. I felt safe within myself, at ease within myself, and sleepy with the warmth of love.

Before the household stirred I dressed and left.

Francisco had made love to me with all the passion of life, with all the passion of a man raging against the dark. I had known him for such a short time. This tidy man with his sherry and his library and his stories of a world that had become my dowry.

As I drove towards the city, I remembered that first seduction; I remembered the red glasses, the sherry, the waiting for the taste and how by talking about the tapestries he had revealed his desire. How that was the way he communicated.

I thought right back, trying to recall the words and the conversations, trying to look behind the obvious to the hidden messages. And then I began to think through what Francisco had told me just a few hours ago. He had wanted my forgiveness for what he called his youthful dereliction of duty and yet it was my father who had acted the part of the barbarian. It was my father who had doubled crossed him and stolen the map. Did my father take the map because he feared their forgery would be discovered? Did he fear further government raids on the map? Were such genteel thoughts just trying to keep sacred his memory? Did I not know the man behind my father? Did he set out to trick Francisco?

I thought again of Suarez and Francisco's talk of that ancient philosophy of essence and being. Of life and death...

I cut my thoughts short and pulled over the car.

The radio had been playing but I hadn't been listening and now I could hear it - an aria from Mozart, full of dance and life and joy. My hands grasped the steering wheel with fear and a desperate effort to hold onto... what? - life itself? Some great inner pain ripped at my chest. I opened my mouth and screamed without voice. I screamed silence.

Gasping for air, I understood.

I smelt my skin, I smelt him on my skin.

I knew why he had asked me to stay with him through the night.

I don't know how long I sat there on the side of the road. Quite suddenly I felt enormously cold and tired, as if I needed to sleep for days and days. I started up the car and turned up the heater. I headed for home.

Back at my house I ignored the flashing light on the answering machine, I pulled the bedroom curtains and without bothering to shower I took off my clothes and fell into the warmth and comfort of my bed and doona. I cradled myself in the pillows, a buffer against the loss and the emptiness, and I fell into a deep sad sleep.

I dreamt as Keats on the cold hillside. I dreamt as me on the cold roadside. I dreamt of the old woman. I dreamt of purple hats and ancient rhymes; of chants and fires and old women's voices; of cards held in bony wrinkled hands; of manuscripts and maps; of oceans and billowing sails; of the seabird's high shrieking sounds. Shrill. Aloft. Away.

* * *

The end came quickly. It was only a matter of days before a letter arrived from Francisco. As is his way he had written it in Latin. It read:

 

My Dearest Meridian,

I write this letter with great sadness in my heart. Perhaps it is the case that we will not see each other again.

I am to go into hospital for what is euphemistically called 'tests', but I fear I will not ever see the night stars again.

I am an old man. As I write I can hear you playfully chide me for such remarks, but it is true. I have lived a very full and rewarding life and to be given the gift of your tenderness at this late stage of my being is more than I could have hoped for. How precious your visits were to me.

Do not cry or be distressed. I too wish we could share more time together. Even now I recall our last moments. It gave me such pleasure to bring it to you, to provide even such a simple feast.

I regret little in my life. It is poignant that perhaps that which I did most regret I shared with you. I leave it with you to put right what a youthful man set wrong. Is that too heavy a legacy?

It is time for me to test out those theories of eternity - do I now go to the altar of God?

I do not mind my death; I feel quite prepared and ready and yes, very tired, not so much of what life holds, but of the effort to maintain life. I long to sleep and to let my dreams and memories become my reality.

Take great care of yourself and of that other gift entrusted to you.

Remember me.

Francisco

 

Was it a week? I don't know. It seemed no time at all before his daughter-in-law was standing at my front door holding a carefully wrapped parcel. She stood strong and erect and handed me the parcel saying, "He wanted you to have these."

I invited her in but she was edgy, not wanting to stay. She had almost no details for me of his death, it was obviously an extremely difficult subject for her and she refused to discuss it. I ached for detail.

I watched her walk down the driveway to her car. I shut the front door. I cocooned myself in my house. I put on my copy of Purcell's Dido and Aneas and turned the volume up high, letting the CD play over and over, filling the house with those extraordinary sounds - the sadness and joy, the horns and cellos of life and loss.

The parcel sat on the hall table and I carefully took it up. Inside, wrapped to shield them from breakage, were Francisco's blood red glasses. I took one slowly to my lips. I let the moist soft part of my lip feel the coolness of the glass.

I remembered his story about the small shop, the day he found the glasses, the fuss back at the cathedral, the arrival of the tapestry from years of restoration. I remembered the taste of sherry. I remembered the taste of Francisco.

I'm not sure how long I sat there. I remember the phone; it rang once or twice. I ignored it. I became aware of my body. I felt cold and stiff from sitting too long in the same position. The phone rang, it had, I think, been ringing quite a lot. This time I picked it up. It was Crete.

"Thank God you're home, are you all right?"

"Yes." I was puzzled by her question.

"Well, " she said a little awkwardly, "I heard about Francisco and I thought..."

"Crete, come over... I'll open a bottle of sherry."

"Sure, but have you any idea what time it is?"

I hadn't noticed time. There had been his daughter-in-law's visit in the morning, and the time I ate the omelette and... "Why? What time is it?"

"Just before two in the morning. I'll be over shortly." And she hung up.

I stood up, stretched, and went outside to turn on the driveway lights. I looked up at the sky and the beauty of the stars embraced me. Large tears began to fall down my cheeks and I stayed there, sitting by the front fence until Crete arrived.

In the house a single voice was singing against a cello, "Remember me."

 

15

It was early winter.

Crete and I drove out into the country. We wanted to walk in the cool country air and smell the smells of early winter - the grass, the wetness, the rotting leaves, the smoke from chimneys and burn-offs, the smell of kitchens and soups and rich red wine.

Crete's relationship with Gabbett had broken down and, as she had feared, he had returned permanently to Sydney. I wasn't too familiar with the details, for while she wanted my company she didn't want to talk about him or the final stages of their affair. I understood. I welcomed her company and also didn't particularly want to talk about Francisco, about our time alone in his library, his relationship with my father, or about the way I had been so excluded from his death.

I don't know how long we drove. Neither of us talked very much and I was thankful for the silence. I felt emotionally drained and like the sign on the Drive-in we passed, I too, felt closed for winter.

I thought of the Vinland Map and my paper, going over it in my mind. I had retraced the map's recent history leaving out the inclusion of my father but suggesting the possibility of a conspiracy. I had not gone as far as Eric and embroiled the Kennedy family or for that matter any anti-Italian prejudice that may have been about at the time. I had simply suggested, in the strongest possible way that the list of coincidences was too great and that the re-discovery had more than likely been aided by some outside intervention.

In the end I had wanted to protect memory, my father's and Francisco's. If they were involved in this particular plot then how many other slightly devious activities were either of them also behind? While I could admit to myself that Francisco might have been an innocent, I could not see my father so untarnished. I was only too aware of how easy it was, in post-war chaos, to shield espionage activities behind the mantle of art or scholarship. I had heard the fascinating story of the making of the film The Third Man , shot on location in Germany immediately after the war. In part financed by the British Intelligence agency MI6, it was one of the first films to be shot on location and was used to mask covert activities carried out by agents masquerading as additional crewmembers. Were conferences, digs and symposiums similarly used? We would probably never know.

As a consequence of my squeamishness and family loyalty, (I for one did not think it was my task as an academic to reveal the truth no-matter-what), I drew a strong line between the use of the map in the 20th century and the fragments we could recover of its history in the 15th century. The two, I argued, had for too long been confused and lumped together. I agreed with those who placed the map at the Council of Basel but made much of its symmetry, its depiction of the Atlantic islands, and the way it used oceans to balance the world. Crete had been right about that.

I argued that the map, of little consequence until its sensational rediscovery, was simply a mappa mundi that combined three sets of information - the known world; the world as retold in the Norse sagas; and the world of the Tartar Relations . It was a map of stories as much as a map of the land. That Greenland had been so perfectly depicted was more a matter of chance since the drawing of the other continents were, to the modern eye, not immediately recognisable. I made much of the depiction of England and Ireland and argued that the map was produced by someone from a seafaring nation, suggesting a particular Irish-Icelandic monk, Saint Beneface the Bold, known for both his travels and his library. Indeed, he was probably the only figure in history to be mistaken for his library.

It was a well rounded, if not conservative paper, and while academically I was pleased with it, nevertheless it left me feeling as if I had cheated myself and my readers. There was so much more about the map and my investigations which I did not include. My paper avoided the human, muddy, aspect of discovery. I had shielded my father but there were so many other stories I had not told. How could I include the old woman in her purple hat, or Eric receiving an oddly wrapped parcel in a cafe on the old docks? How could I write about Francisco and the rose he had given me, the memory he had left me? How could I insert into such a paper the taste of the sherry or the feel of the water on my body as I swam naked in the pool? How could I write about Martha and her library and the precious illuminated manuscripts? And most importantly, how could I write about a time in the 1950s when two men did what at least one of them thought was right. How could I write the story which left me with the legacy of the map?

Crete turned off the highway. "There's an orchard nearby. I need the order today," was all she said. And then she added perfunctorily, "Is that okay?"

Crete turned the car off the road and drove down a rough farm drive. She waved to a woman working in the orchard. I opened the car door and the crisp country air assaulted me. I breathed it in, letting go of the closed city air, the closed air of my investigation, of rooms and cafes and libraries.

Crete had brought me to no simple orchard. This was an espaliered orchard where rows and rows of trees had been clipped, tied, and pruned tighter than a vineyard. The trees, quite old by the looks, resembled twisted and knotty vines, stark now that the leaves had fallen. The orchard was large and the rows of bound, two-dimensional trees long. The branches, curved and tied to long lines of wire, looked like huge wrought-iron fences designed by some crazy wild artist. I had never seen such a place.

We began to walk down one of the rows. It was completely contrived, as unnatural as a bonsai forest might be. And yet we were saturated by the sounds and smells of the countryside, of the natural. Birds flew overhead, and at the end of one of the rows was a smouldering fire where logs and clippings had been burnt. Everywhere was the wet, crisp air of the overcast day - it smelt of farms and cows and puddles and grass. How often, I wondered, do we mix the natural and the contrived together in our lives?

Crete was wearing her Driza-Bone. As she walked I noticed how parched the oil skin fabric was becoming. The wrinkled lines looked like an aerial map of arid countryside. She did up the top press-stud, shielding herself against the cold.

I drop back a few steps and watch Crete walking between the rows of trees. Strangely, I was beginning to like their two dimensional shape. They reminded me of rivers and creeks, folds in the earth as seen from above. I remembered a flight I took in a hot air balloon. It was late summer and the grass was withered and sparse. I was quite intrigued at how the lack of vegetation revealed the folds and tucks, the ripples in the skin, the veins in the earth.

I caught up with Crete and eventually said, "I've been thinking about the map, what to do with it." I'd thought of giving it to Martha, she could have put it with her other uncatalogued items, it would of course be safe in such a place. But something kept holding me back from giving it to her. Crete and Eric were still the only ones to know of its existence.

"Is it because of Francisco?" Crete asked. "It's connected to him?"

I didn't know. There was something there. The map had become my own story. Just as it had combined the Norse and Tartar stories so too had it combined my family and Francisco's stories. Somehow I needed to keep it, at least a little longer.

 

The Tenth Mandala - Centre

I took from my pocket a small and precious watch and placed it in Crete's hand. Lately I had been carrying it around with me.

Crete looked carefully at it. It was about the size of a fob watch and its outer casing was made of tortoiseshell. At some time in the watch's history the tortoiseshell had cracked and a little of the yellow metal casing was showing. It was not gold but a yellow coloured alloy of some kind.

I took the watch from her. The tortoiseshell case was hinged at the side and I opened it and remove the watch from its casing. Crete held the outer casing and commented upon how light it felt.

"Yes, the weight is in the watch itself. It feels good in my hand." And I gave it back to her to feel the weight of it, to feel the history of it. It nestled in the centre of her palm.

"It feels quite precious. What century?"

"Seventeenth."

"It's stopped just a little after 12. A little past noon, or a little past midnight. I wonder how many years ago?" She handed it back to me.

I had forgotten the time it showed. I undid another clasp lifting the thick crystal cover to the watch face, and then yet another clasp, until the watch itself pivoted open and revealed its workings. I handed it back to Crete, opened for her to inspect.

"It's like a Russian doll." She said, taking hold of it carefully.

I could remember as a child being delighted by the layer within layer of the watch. I was never allowed to work the delicate mechanisms myself - more and more clasps would be opened up for me showing more and more hidden treasures.

The mechanism of the watch was extraordinarily elaborate and decorative much like an illuminated manuscript. The cogs and coils were housed in their own casing, decorated with finely etched leaves and flowers centred around a smiling gargoyle. The top of this casing had been engraved with the watchmaker's name: Tomlinson, 1631, London.

"A family heirloom." I said and told her the story.

"The watch, in about 1631, just around the Great Fire of London, was given to a woman called Isabella by her husband. The story is a little unclear at this point. It was given to her either on her wedding night or at the birth of her first child. I've heard both versions in the family.

"Years later she gave it to her daughter, again I'm not sure if it was a wedding gift or a birthing one. Somehow, the occasion doesn't seem to matter at all. This daughter gave it to her daughter and the watch has been passed down from mother to daughter ever since. I remember seeing it at my grandmother's house and then at my mother's house and now it's with me. One day I'll give it to my daughter, and she to hers."

I put the watch back together and held it in the small of my hand. "What's so precious about it is that this tiny object connects me to four hundred years of my female line. Isabella is my foremother and each and every one of those women who I am descended from have held this watch in their hands."

The watch was smooth and warm with 400 years of women's touch.

"Crete, somewhere in all that line is a woman with my colour skin, my eyes, my ear lobes. And Isabella? Somewhere in me is part of her, perhaps my hair colour, or my toe nails, or the way I laugh."

I wanted to explain this very carefully to Crete. "This watch connects me to my mother's mother's mother. This is my memory Crete, my historical memory."

I put the watch back into her hand to let her feel the age of women, the memory of the women.

We stopped by a smouldering pile of cuttings and logs where the farmer had been burning off. The smoke smelt good, it matched the smell of early winter. We stood and poked at the remains of the fire, turning over the coals. We knew we both carried pain and the silence was good, healing.

After a time Crete spoke. "I burn my Christmas tree, every year, I turn it into a barbecue, the first for autumn. It makes an awful mess of the garden but it doesn't matter. Gabbett...," She broke off and shrugged. "It doesn't matter what he thought." He had returned to his wife before winter began. I had seen him once and he looked as unhappy as Crete. "It's for the boys," he said, and I wondered if he was lying to me or to himself.

"Do you hear from him?"

"On and off. When he needs me, when I need him. But it's always furtive. Maybe desperate. Yes, desperate is the word I'd use. God! I think I need to get away. You know," her voice sounded more pensive and sadder than usual, "I'm glad I'm not his wife. I couldn't bear to be lied to, I couldn't bear to be deceived in the way I know he deceives her. She'll never know it, but I think she's the one who's scored the worst deal."

I asked her to tell me about burning her tree, I thought it might get her mind off Gabbett.

She kicked at the coals. "It's about tradition. I always do it. Sometimes I think it's just an excuse to get rid of the thing, to have a primitive fire in the backyard. I don't know. It's one of the things I do in the year. One of the ways of progressing life along, even when you don't much feel like it."

We walked on away from the smoke, down another row of the orchard. "Traditions are important to me," Crete said. "What the burning of the tree does is give me the focus and the strength to have another try at life. When I burn the tree I get rid of the rubbish of summer, all the unwanted things, the mistakes."

Crete's burning of the tree reminded me of confessionals and absolution. I remembered last summer I was in Brisbane and I went to see the city's two cathedrals. It was midday on a weekday. As far as I knew there was nothing special, nothing liturgically special that is, about the day. But the Catholic cathedral had perhaps as many as a couple of hundred people in it. Some of them were kneeling in the pews in the main body of the church, others were in the nooks and at the side altars, praying or burning candles. The whole place buzzed with under-spoken prayer, with the sound of hundreds of lips moving and almost no sound coming forth. Then quite spontaneously someone, not a priest or a nun or anyone in vestments or attire, just an ordinary looking bloke who perhaps felt the need, stood up and began, in a clear open voice, to say the rosary. The whispered prayers stopped. The people kneeling joined in and the cathedral filled with the sound of this ancient prayer, with the ancient need to call upon the mother.

Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death...

I sat alone in one of the back pews and I began to weep. I wept for my loss of innocence. How wonderful, how simple, how totally easy it would be to believe in that absolution. Wasn't this the very thing Francisco longed for when he tried to justify his part in the theft? To feel that in a simple ritual, all our harm, pain, sins, and ugliness can be washed clean. I felt sorry for myself, sorry that I had lost that easy innocence. Was Crete's ritual just another form of absolution? Then and now I long for faith, for the luxury of faith, Crete's faith or the faith of that congregation.

"Tell me," Crete asked, "what was your great grandmother's name?"

"Lalla, I said instantly, She was a very Victorian woman, long dresses, that kind of thing. She lived in a room at my grandmother's, at Mater's house. It was quite a large room, I suppose, it was both a bedroom and a kind of sitting room for her. I remember that behind a sofa was a trunk filled with treasure. Whenever I visited she'd open it and show me. She told me it was a secret so I didn't tell the others. It was a trunk filled with satin and silk off-cuts, every colour and pattern and texture you could imagine. Each piece held dreams for me, Cinderella dreams of ball gowns, and Lalla would fill me with her stories, stories of the fabrics, stories of dreams, stories of another time. I suppose she handled those off-cuts as some women do their patchwork quilts; their lives."

I continued my story. "She'd often tell me the treasure was mine when she died. She said she'd put it in her will. I was a little anxious about this and questioned her many times. You see, I was convinced that if it wasn't written down somewhere, as such a young member of the family, no one would believe me that the treasure was mine.

"I was still quite young when Lalla died and one day mum told me she was off to the solicitors because of Lalla's will. I waited at home and panicked. What would the family say when the will was read out and the treasure had been given to me? I dressed in a respectable way, in a way I thought an heiress might dress, and I waited and waited for a taxi to arrive from the solicitors. No taxi came.

"Eventually my mother came home and gave me a broach, 'From Lalla's things.' She said, 'So you can remember her.'

"I said nothing. I thanked her for the broach and went to my room. I was of course bitterly disappointed. Later, much later, as an adult, I told my mother the story and she laughed. Apparently they hadn't known what to do with the old trunk and threw it out. 'If only we'd known,' she kept saying, 'If only we'd known...'"

"Mater and Lalla. Great names. They're very alive to you."

"And your grandmother, great-grandmother?"

"Much like you. Meridian, do you realise I asked you for your grandmother's name, and your great grandmother's name. You gave me some names, wonderful names, and you told me stories to help the names come alive. But these are not the kind of names recorded in history. Can you tell me your grandmother's maiden name? What's Mater's real name?"

I couldn't, I didn't even know for sure exactly what her Christian name was. "Something like Winnie." I suggested. As for Lalla, my great-grandmother, I had absolutely no idea of her real name. I remembered them both by these pet names which seemed so real to me, so full of life and personality and old photos and old memories. I touched the old watch in my pocket. It felt warm and familiar.

"I suppose," Crete said, "tradition for me is a bit like your watch and your stories. It's the thing which connects me to my mother, her grandmother, her great grandmother. I can trace these women by the way I do these things. By the way I sing rhymes or make a birthday cake."

Crete smiled, "Maybe we need to have another tree burning, just you and me. We can get rid of Gabbett and ..." She stopped before saying Francisco.

I hugged her. "Yes, and Francisco. Let's do it." It was hard for either of us to speak his name. Why was that, I wondered? Do we not call out the name of the dead for fear of what it might evoke? Of what it might remind us of? I remembered the old woman at my gate. Is that what the others had feared?

Crete let her voice drop to a whisper. "So the map itself probably doesn't matter too much - what matters are the stories?"

She was right, deep down I knew it. Deep down I knew I was only delaying the inevitable. The map wasn't like the old watch, or the way I made scones. It came from another tradition, it needed to be returned. I could take it to Saragossa, to the old cathedral library or I could give it to Martha. Somehow Martha felt a better option, she knew me well enough not to ask too many question. How I came to have it was not something I wanted to talk about. Not yet. And besides, Martha was our guardian of such things.

We had reached the end of the orchard.

Crete's car was close by and deep in the conversation we got into the car and drove away. We were planning our own ritual tree burning. Our own absolution. As we left, I caught a glimpse of an old woman on a stepladder pruning the trees. I was surprised I had not seen her earlier.

But I was mistaken, the old woman was not pruning the trees. Her purple hat lay on the ground next to the stepladder, and all this time she had been patiently, painstakingly, clipping away the ties that bind the trees to the trellis.

Somewhere in the orchard the trees were becoming three-dimensional.

 

 


 

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