As Eric had warned me, my father's notes were fragmented as if whole
sections were missing. There were notes on the Vinland Map, some detailed
data relating to oceans and tides, and a couple of pages on the importance
of preserving our past set against the moral issues raised by any collection
of cultural artifacts. It was well worked territory, perhaps my father
had been wrestling with it at the time, but since his notes offered no
new insights they didn't interest me greatly.
The part of my father's notes which did intrigue me was the story about
those odd one legged creatures, the uniped. He'd translated this one from
Eirik the Red's Saga.
A Uniped Shoots Thorvald with an Arrow and Kills
One day the merchant Karlsefni, who was eager to explore Vinland,
sailed with his crew and Thorvald, Eirik the Red's son. They went
north past the headland Kjalarness and then west keeping the land
on the port beam. They passed great and wild forests until they came
to a river and they decided to shelter on its southern bank. They
steered their ship into its mouth.
Karlsefni saw something moving in the clearing not far from the
ship. He called out to it. His men stopped what they were doing and
came over to look. Thorvald, who was resting on the bow, did not stir.
The creature was a uniped. On its one leg it came bounding towards
them at great speed. It fired an arrow which hit Thorvald in the groin.
Thorvald pulled the arrow from his groin, and, although at first
he thought he would survive the wound, he died soon after.
The uniped fled towards the north with Karlsefni and his men
in pursuit. But the uniped was too fast and Karlsefni only caught
glimpses of it now and then before it disappeared into a creek. The
party returned to the boat. They set sail calling the place Unipedland.
They returned to their settlement in Vinland and did not set foot
again on Unipedland for fear of the crew's safety.
A poem records the event:
Karlsefni, hear that it is true,
Your men did chase a uniped
Down to the sea.
The creature ran like the wind
Over stone and ground.
Hear this, Karlsefni.
Reading my father's notes brought back childhood memories of the stories
he'd told me about the uniped. It was a favourite character of his, and
time and time again, he'd tell me of the uniped's fantastic adventures.
We even had a family saying: "I'm hunting the uniped," which
tended to cover everything from hunting dreams to tackling the impossible.
Thinking about it now I realised the uniped, a lively part of my childhood
menagerie, was no more a fantastic or unbelievable creature than the unicorn,
the dragon, the bunyip or the Martian. It is as if we humans must have
at least two kinds of creatures: those which are familiar, zooed and charted;
and those other quite magical creatures - the imagined, the unexplored
bestiary. These are the creatures of the gargoyles. They decorate our
charts and our dreams. They guide us to the unimaginable or to the strange
and unknown. They populate the land on the other side of our horizon,
the other side of our sight. It's as if there's a human need to create
these mythical beasts and only then is the universe somehow complete.
Do I sleep better knowing that the Loch Ness Monster is safely in the
depths of the loch? Do I breathe easy knowing that the Yeti is high up
in the unpassable snow bound regions of the Himalayas? And do I walk the
streets with comfort knowing that the Martian is safely in its flying
saucer? Are my rituals complete knowing that the Tooth Fairy will appear
at the right time along with the Easter Bunny and the elves and Father
Christmas and the whole basement full of seasonal creatures? Where does
the Easter Bunny go for the rest of the year? We never ask. Who has seen
the Centaur or the Cyclops? Was there a body to bury when the Minotaur
was slain in the labyrinth? Did anyone bother to look for it?
Somehow, these creatures complete the mystery. They give us the understanding
that no matter how far we travel we will never quite reach the end - even
at the edge of the map there remains, always, inside ourselves or on the
land, an uncharted world of possibilities and unbelievable danger. The
wise traveller is wary of the future, it contains not just our wishes
and our dreams, our tomorrow and our hope, but it also contains the moment
of our death. These creatures, the ones which populate the future, the
unknown, are not to be taken lightly.
I put my father's papers away and made a cup of coffee, trying to clear
my head of unipeds.
* * *
We left in Crete's car. It was late summer and the afternoon was pleasant
without being hot. She drove out of the city and turned into a park I
didn't know. The road edged itself along a creek between two steep hills.
One hillside was covered in trees and yellowing grass, the other was rocky,
and for me at least, inaccessible.
It was like a lot of reserves, a curious word for a wild park. We drove
past campers, a kiosk and telephone box. There were few people about.
It was a week day and too late in the season for most campers. Further
into the park, we passed a slightly less regimented picnic spot with barbecues
and free-form play equipment for kids. There was a sign saying 'no sliding
allowed', I had forgotten the word, but a rope that hung from a tree and
dangled over the creek gave me a clear enough image. It would be good
to come here, I thought, when the place was full with children.
I wondered why swinging on the rope was such a forbidden pleasure, and
yet it hung there, tempting disobedience.
We passed a parked car and drove deeper and deeper into the valley. Crete
had hardly spoken but she had driven without hesitation. She was taking
me to a place she knew well. It was Crete's dreaming space, her woman
She pulled off the road and stopped the car.
At the spot she had chosen, it was easy to cross the creek, and on the
other side the grass wasn't too long, the bank not too steep. There was
no one about and it felt as if we were exploring a new land. She tugged
up some shoots of creeper, some ivy, and we both wrapped them around our
waists like children. The air smelt sweet with the afternoon sun and we
walked for a bit through some thistles; the leaves were dark green and
striped with white, unlike any I had seen before.
Crete let her thoughts wander, casually telling me snippets of her week.
"I began to bleed this morning," she said, changing the conversation.
"I hadn't bled for awhile, maybe a couple of months. Menopause,"
she explained. "They tell me that's how it begins." She pulled
at a piece of grass. "It feels good, like the relief after a heat
wave - suddenly it rains and all the earth around you, the bitumen, the
air itself, drops in temperature and the world feels fresh again."
"Funny isn't it. Do you recall when we were younger, if we didn't
bleed dead on time there'd be such a panic."
She nodded, "Did you ever have to have an abortion?"
I shook my head and then smiled. "Just luck I guess! Do you remember
when you started, as a girl?"
"Not quite twelve, I think. Was it a shame job for you as well,
something kept a secret from everyone else in the family?"
It had been. "Was that the first part of our separation, our isolation
as girls?" Nothing was ever said of course, it was a subtle rite
of passage, but it was about then that I was discouraged from playing
with any male children. I remember one night Eric stayed over and he had
to sleep in the lounge room. I couldn't work out why. Every other time
he'd slept in my room, in the spare bed.
We talked as we walked along, sharing stories and taboos of our girlhood.
Crete's voice changed, it became quite serious. "How can you begin
to love someone if you can't let your body swell with his child? When
I've lost my fertility, when I can't have a child. Where does the love
go? What does it become?"
I found her question odd - it was something I hadn't thought about -
I had never seen love in those terms, but then, Crete had had children
with all her lovers. Obviously, it had been a manifestation of her love,
a way in which she made the intangible, tangible. I thought then that
she had a lot of new things to learn about loving - if she was going to
give Gabbett love she'd need to find a new way of expressing it. But I
wasn't about to lecture her, I knew only too well that there was a lot
I too had to learn. After all, Crete was at least prepared to have another
try, to risk rejection, disappointment. I knew I wasn't even prepared
to open a Valentines card - that's how scared I'd become. "Maybe
that's why menopause takes so long, we need to adjust, acclimatise."
I didn't say, but I had begun to notice slight changes in my own body.
"Mmm..." She was distracted with her own thoughts.
"How did the potion go?" I asked.
"I'm still drying the herb. It has to be quite brittle."
"So you found some?"
The path wound down to the creek bed but didn't cross it; instead it
hugged the bank and then turned back towards the hillside and the wild
olive trees and old gums. We came across a small square patch of dirt,
it looked to me as if an animal had been buried there, some favourite
pet or something, but Crete muttered about people taking potting soil
so I thought my mood must be turning very romantic.
"Meridian," Crete broke the silence, "I don't know about
Gabbett." She was looking at the palm of her hand as if it held some
answer. "They say it's all here," she rubbed her palm. "My
life. It would be so easy to go to a fortune teller, to have it all laid
out for you."
I agreed. It was hard work living without faith, without someone else
making all the hard decisions, justifying all the pain and forgiving all
"He's coming over again next Thursday. He said he wanted to spend
the weekend, work everything out, one way or the other." She bit
her bottom lip like a worried child. "Sometimes I wake up and I look
at him sleeping and I'm really afraid, not of him, he's a gentle man,
." She stopped herself. "Meridian, I can't tell him
"Maybe," I said trying to reassure her, "It's just been
too quick. Does he know?"
She shrugged. "A bit. I don't want to..." And she broke off.
We left the conversation at that point.
The one attack I'd experienced I carried like a deep scar. I couldn't
even begin to understand what Crete must be feeling after her history.
Have any of us, I wondered, completely escaped? If it isn't in the form
of a fist, the violence comes some other way, some form of abuse, some
form of bullying. I thought of the old woman at my gate and how she had
been bundled off, how no one had asked her, listened to her.
We continued walking in silence. We stopped and looked at a cluster of
small flowers, those minute ones you hardly ever notice, and we walked
back through the thistles to continue in the opposite direction. I was
enjoying the day and as I walked I listened to the sounds around me. I
could hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance, a few birds, some
movement in the trees, and the buzz and click of insects. I began counting
the sounds, as I did as a child.
We were walking through the tall grass by now and I had a collection
of unusual fungi in my coat pocket. We stopped and looked at some that
were fluted on top as if the whole fungus was turned inside out. I tapped
it to release its spores, it was a trick my mother had taught me, and
put it with the rest.
"He was over last night... " Crete offered by way of explanation.
"He'd flown in for the day; he needed some more footage of that Spaniard,
the old librarian. He caught the early flight this morning."
"No wonder you wanted to come out here..." I broke off. She
hadn't heard me. She was transfixed staring at the grass. She grabbed
my arm. "Look! Blood, here and over there."
Tiny droplets of blood, fresh and dark red, stained the grass. Here and
there, like a trail, as if someone or something had been cut and was staggering.
We followed the trail. Instinctively we felt that whatever it was could
only just be in front of us.
We neither hurried nor spoke but followed the trail carefully. I felt
apprehensive at what might lie ahead. We were both a little afraid, I
could feel it in Crete.
At times the trail was thin and hard to follow, at times heavy, but always
it was fresh. That distinctive colour of fresh blood before it begins
to grow dark or clot. I doubt very much if any woman could ever mistake
that colour. As women we know blood in an intimate way, its texture, its
feel, the way it changes. We knew that what we were following was not
far ahead of us.
We must have walked for about a mile following the trail. I began to
think about Crete, her body changing slowly, and how mine would as well.
How gradually over years our bleeding dries up, the wound heals and we
change our patterns from the moon to perhaps the sun. Is that why gardens
become important to women of our age?
I wondered if Crete was thinking about her coming menopause, or if she
was reliving her night, dreaming of Gabbett and assessing the possibilities
of sharing her life with him.
We kept on following the trail. It was something about the freshness
of the blood that kept us; compelled us to go on looking. We had the feeling
we were first on the scene - afraid of what might lie ahead of us but
afraid to stop.
The green belt of ivy fell from my waist to the ground.
The trail took us back to the creek and led into the water. Next to the
edge of the trail, a few steps away, two large concrete pipes formed a
kind of bridge. Whatever it was had lost a lot of blood, why didn't it
cross using the bridge?
Crete touched my arm. "Will you look or will I?" She was asking
about the pipes that formed the bridge. Perhaps that was the first time
we admitted the wort to each other.
I didn't feel very brave, but, I thought, she really was afraid, and
one of us had to look. I went down stream and reluctantly looked back,
up into the pipes.
Nothing, just the water. Nothing, just the things we had come to see.
The reeds, maybe some tadpoles, a bit of watercress. Nothing.
The relief was enormous and I called out to her and splashed the water.
Were we, I wondered, constructing a world of danger and violence when
all the time there was nothing to fear? Was the blood nothing but a trace
left by an animal who had cut its paw? Were we colouring this place with
some deep psychic fear, something from girlhood? I kept my thoughts to
We crossed the creek and Crete began to look around for new signs of
the trail. We found a few drops of blood and they led to where fresh tyre
marks had bent the grass. We looked around but couldn't find any further
traces of the blood and we both agreed that whatever it was must have
got into the car. Probably, because we couldn't cope with any other explanation,
we agreed it was a dog that'd hurt its paw. It sounded as feasible as
any other explanation and we sat down, tired, for we'd walked miles.
We sat there in silence until Crete said, "What if it didn't get
into the car but came out of it? What if we went in the wrong direction?"
I had to admit it sounded feasible, as feasible as the dog explanation
or any other we might have played around with privately.
We crossed the creek and began again.
It was odd; somehow retracing the trail was a lot less stressful. Going
back over history seems a lot easier than moving forward into it, perhaps
because when we look back we do so with hindsight. When we move backwards,
we are searching for some kind of explanation, some causal factor that
links us with a past event. We are searching for an order, we are trying
to make sense of the world. We make links and connect situations,
provide provenance, form lineage, trace genealogy and, importantly, find
comfort. To look back is easier because we are looking for something in
particular, something familiar and known, something we want to
But when we go forward into the future, we are engaged in the perplexing
quest for survival in a completely unknown world. All we know about the
future, the only thing we can map with any certainty, is that within it,
somewhere within it, we will cease to be. The future is the paradox of
humanity for it holds both our hope and also our demise - our death.
It's little wonder religions created the afterlife and populated it with
hell and heaven, purgatory, recreation, judgement, pearly gates, Saint
Peter and the archangels. They crowded the landscape to make it more familiar,
a safer bet, a known garden. Armed with the afterlife we can name the
future, plot it like a map, and speak about it with some easy familiarity.
But it's a trick, a sleight of hand, a projection, which hides the awful
truth of human nothingness. We can no more turn the future into a safe
place than we can turn the circle into the square. Human beings just aren't
The blood was beginning to dry and change colour. By now we had passed
a few familiar sections of the trail, some flowers I remembered and the
crop of inside-out fungus. We must have been getting closer to where we
began the search.
I thought of my father's notes, of those Norse men and women, of the
courage it must have taken to go beyond the known world to places where
fantasy and reality collided, and neither religion nor history could help
them make sense of it.
"This is where we started. The trail, we began here." Crete
said, and she pointed to other markings. She had been right, we had gone
in the wrong direction.
I felt the first sour taste of fear. I could feel it forming in my throat
and in my stomach. We went on as before, in silence, slowly searching
the ground. Then without any reason the blood trail just stopped.
We searched the area, under fallen trees, over the creek edge, up the
hill among the wild olive trees. But nothing. Not a trace. Not a sign.
All we could hear was the distant sounds of young children playing. Nothing.
We looked for some trace on a broken bottle or an old tin. If it had cut
itself, there would be some signs of blood. But nothing. It was as if
the blood had somehow just come from within the body, some kind of injury,
and then it had stopped.
By now our heads were firmly fixed on the ground, searching over every
bit of the grass, moving in circles, out at tangents. But nothing.
"Watch out!" A male voice called out.
We looked up and he was pointing to a spot not far from us where he had
set a trap. By his feet was a clutter of hunting apparatus including what
looked like a bow and a quiver of arrows. But more disturbing to both
of us was his appearance. He was barechested and his jeans had a tear
across the knee. His hair was loose and unkempt and in his left hand he
very definitely held a knife.
"That trap, you nearly disturbed it!" He was angry. We had
stumbled into what he clearly saw as his private domain. Lawrencean in
appearance and totally frightening, he held all the arrogance of youth
and might have sprung from those romantic novels we read as young girls.
"Where are you shooting the arrows?" Crete demanded trying
to hide her fear behind indignation.
I grabbed her arm, this was not the time to challenge such a figure,
and without hesitation or a word I rapidly led her away from him to the
safety of the car.
As we drove out of the body of the gorge I kept thinking that any other
day we would have found him harmless, almost picturesque, possibly quaint.
He was probably a camper. But on that afternoon he represented all of
that brash single minded energy which in its positive form builds bridges
and in its shadow, as male dominance and aggression, banishes and smashes
the dreams and thoughts of women. He represented the fear of
the hunter. He was the inquisitor, the axeman, the hunter, who by his
very archetype fears the quarry into submission. It was important, crucial
for our survival that we got out of there; that we did not let him see
our fear, we did not let him see the red shoes of our dreams.
Had we let our own history and thoughts colour the situation, saturate
it until one reality had become another? Had we seen a world which did
not exist, one which we had invented? Had we turned a walk in the park
into a search , the camper into a hunter ? I looked around
me; there was nothing sinister or frightening about the park, about any
of it. Nothing that is, except what we'd constructed in our imaginations.
But wasn't that construction real to us, frightening to us?
We drove out of the reserve and in a little time we were back at my house
in need of some coffee. By the front door a courier had delivered a parcel.
My breakfast and lunch dishes were still in the sink. I put the kettle
on and undid the parcel. It contained a small dark carving of a uniped.
Eric had sent it.
An article in the daily paper caught my attention. Once again the Vinland
Map was in the news. I called Eric and asked him over for a meal. If anyone
could help me get to the bottom of this whole thing, he could.
I showed him the article: after further examination of the scientific
evidence on ink particles taken from the Vinland Map, doubts had arisen
regarding the original scientific findings. Yale University Library had,
however, refused to subject the map to further scientific testing.
Eric smiled. "So now you think the map might be genuine?"
I didn't know. My certainty that it was a forgery had been disturbed.
I had placed a lot of credence on the original findings which proved
that the ink used in the map was of a modern origin. Once again the scientific
evidence had been unreliable. "Does the date 1347 mean anything to
you?" I asked him.
"It's where your father's papers left off. Have you found more?"
"I'm not sure. Nothing in Greenlandic, but I'm not too sure."
I had prepared a simple meal of prawns, crusty bread and some tropical
fruit I'd picked up that day from the market - red paw paw, lychees and
mangoes. It was the kind of meal Eric liked, and I was careful to point
out to him how easy it was to put together, how even he could prepare
it. He suggested he could use apples instead of paw paw and I realised
even this meal might die in his culinary hands. I let the topic drop.
We ate and then, in the study, I showed him the papers. "This is
the only thing I could find with the date 1347, it's a shipping record
from an old annals. The ship was bound for Markland..."
"Markland, Helluland and Vinland. They were the Norse names for
what I think was Newfoundland. Helluland was the land of stones. Markland
the land of timber and Vinland of course was the land of vines. According
to the sagas the Norse made a settlement in Vinland."
Eric nodded. "I believe so."
"Well it makes sense, the ship heading for Markland was on a timber
run from Greenland. The odd thing is," I added, "there are all
these calculations on the same page. Tides I think."
Eric took them from me but couldn't make any sense of them either.
"There's more," I showed him the ones I'd found in a copy of
the sagas. "The only thing I can think of are tides, or longitudes
or something. Something to do with shipping." I showed him the numbers
I thought were tides, and those that looked like longitudes.
He still couldn't help me. "Even when I was at the Newfoundland
dig there was talk of tides and shipping routes but it never made much
sense to me. You need a marine archaeologist."
I shrugged; I didn't feel like getting bogged down in that much detail.
I wasn't sure why I was even interested in these old scraps of my father's
notes. Over the last couple of months I had been feeling slightly out
of kilter; it was an emotional feeling rather than a medical ailment.
It felt as if I was about to discover something, not so much about the
world, but about myself. And yet what did that mean? Who am I
but an extension of my parents and my history? Would I discover I was
separate from this, more than this, other than
this? Or was there something else, something about my history, some secret
or forgotten thing that waited lost in the shadows of the family photographs,
waiting to be uncovered? And so once again I found myself wrestling with
two conflicting desires: I felt drawn to investigate my father's papers;
but I also felt a great need to step back from them, to leave that part
of life, that part of time, unmapped.
"Take them to Andersen," Eric persisted. "If your father
had been plotting the currents and the likely route the Norse took from
Greenland, then Andersen would be able to, well, make some sense of it."
"Is he still alive?"
"Comes into the museum regularly and bothers the hell out of us."
Eric agreed to phone through Andersen's address. "Did your father
keep a journal, a notebook?"
But of course. If I could find it, if it existed, it would certainly
contain my father's interest in this, as well as other areas. The trouble
was, I had never seen my father with any kind of journal and nothing like
it had turned up amongst his papers and books. "You know ..."
I felt troubled by its absence. "I've never seen one, nothing like
it. The only things I've found are these bits of paper and some old newspaper
cuttings. It doesn't make sense Eric, he was exactly the kind
of man who'd keep a notebook."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Haven't you always thought he was some kind of
undercover agent during his time in Greenland?"
I blushed. "That's kid's talk. Besides he never admitted it."
Eric waited a few moments before he spoke again. "I know we mucked
about with him as kids, but it makes sense Meridian, as an adult, it makes
a lot of sense. What else could he have been doing in Greenland during
I shrugged. I felt awkward. It had been a subject my father and I had
agreed to leave concealed. "He was hunting unipeds!"
Eric smiled. "That's one way of putting it." He continued,
not noticing how awkward the topic made me feel. "I know you don't
like talking about it. He's dead; it can't hurt him now. But there were
some unexplained things about your father. Now, either he had a double
life and he kept a stack of papers somewhere else..."
I shook my head.
"Or, if he did put his hand to the odd spying job he wouldn't keep
a journal, what he'd do is keep odd scraps of paper in old books, notes
written in esoteric languages, like Greenlandic."
"But that Greenlandic stuff was trivial. Unipeds and the Vinland
Eric said nothing. He got up and poured us both a glass of wine.
"Besides," I defended my father's memory; "it was just
during the war. Everyone did something then. It was probably just code
breaking. That kind of thing."
"Meridian, " Eric spoke unusually slowly, "what if he
kept up those connections? What if he stayed on the payroll?"
I stared at Eric. The thought was monstrous. And yet it made sense. Those
words, 'What if he stayed on the payroll', rolled around and around in
my head making sense of doubts and memories, of his secrecy and quirky
habits. " My father?" I found it hard to speak, to form
these thoughts into words.
Eric was thankfully silent; it gave me the space I needed to work through
"You suspected, when I gave you his notes to translate?"
"But why?" The whole thing was so incredulous I was clearly
miles behind Eric.
"There's a lot about your father that doesn't warrant too close
an inspection. Take his personal Chair in historical geography..."
"What do you mean, he was a scholar!" I felt a surge of anger
as if Eric was now going to doubt my father's credentials.
"No doubt about it. But the appointment to a Chair just doesn't
happen overnight. It costs a lot of money. He was paid a whacking wage;
he had few duties, less teaching and a heap of research money to let him
flit about the globe as he so pleased. Meridian, you work in a university,
they're cash strapped. Have you never thought it odd your father had such
I could honestly say it had never occurred to me. I had never questioned
my father's position.
"And after he retired what happened to the endowment which paid
for the Chair? There wasn't another scholar appointed after him. The endowment
appeared and then just disappeared. Odd that, wouldn't you say?"
Eric leaned forward. "It was the Menzies era, odd things happened
I said nothing but my face must have advertised my doubt.
"You're at the same university as your father. I bet you can't find
out about the endowment that set up his Chair. All your research skills
Meridian won't get you that information. The records just don't exist."
"Jesus, Eric. I need time for this."
"I'm just surprised you didn't put it together yourself ages ago."
"I guess I blocked it... Parents, it's easy to take the family myths
unquestioned." I forced a smile. "It's not as if you're telling
me I have brothers and sisters I never knew about.... You're not, are
"But there is something else isn't there. Something else you haven't
said?" I knew Eric well enough to know how he held back, let information
drop inch by inch until suddenly you found yourself sitting in a puddle
of ideas, all soggy and uncomfortable.
"It's the Vinland Map. The story of its rediscovery is just too
contrived. It was a set up, it had to be."
"By the dealers..."
"Maybe. But what if the dealers where just a couple of clowns, a
couple of naive fools who happen to be in the right place at the wrong
time. What if they were set up?"
Eric told me what he knew of the rediscovery of the Vinland Map
The Vinland Map's Recent History
In 1957, while much of Europe was re-building after the war and
many services had resumed to normal, there was still a certain disarray
in museums, libraries and the world of collecting and antiquity. Art
and fine book collections had been ravaged, lost, discovered, forged
or destroyed. The catalogues that still existed were often in hopeless
confusion and there was an air of secrecy and suspicion, which only
helped the forgers and the thieves. The black market in most European
countries was trading well in art and rare pieces of antiquity along
with certain medicines and foreign currency.
The rare book market, its buyers and sellers, were no exception
in this climate.
In the middle of all of this, an Italian manuscript and bookseller,
Enrico Ferrajoli, who at the time was living in Barcelona, represented
an unnamed client. This client wanted to sell a 15th century volume
from his collection. It was a small work, possible a fragment from
some larger volume and had quite clearly been re-bound in the 19th
century. The volume was not an illuminated manuscript of any great
value, as while it was scribed with confidence on well-prepared sheets
of vellum, it bore no decoration whatsoever. It was a functional text
and recorded the journey of Friar John de Plano Carpini on his Franciscan
mission to Tartary, the lands of Chingis Khan. The text is known as
the Tartar Relations and while in 15th century Europe there
was considerable interest in the customs and stratagem of the Tartars,
sometimes called the Mongols, as a contemporary collectable manuscript
it was of little interest.
However, at the front of the Tartar Relations , in two
leaves of vellum that matched the rest of the volume, was a map of
the known world. Like the Tartar Relations , it was drawn
simply and without decoration, the legend scribed without flourish.
On inspection it appeared to be drawn by the same hand as had scribed
the Relations . In itself it was not remarkable in any way,
and might for some time, have only been seen as an illustration of
places named in the text. What however became quite remarkable to
the 20th century collector were four things. First, the map contained
the earliest known reference to Japan. Second, it contained the first
known drawing of Greenland as an island and not as part of a great
northern arctic continent. Third, it contained, reasonably accurately,
the Atlantic islands, and it had not grouped them to form the mythical
Atlantis. And lastly, it contained, as three linked landmasses, Helluland,
Markland and Vinland, situated in the space Newfoundland might have
occupied on the map. The remarkable thing is that the map was presumably
drawn before Columbus sailed for the New World.
The Vinland Map, as it became known, was the first map which
bore evidence of America.
Now Enrico Ferrajoli knew there wasn't anyone in Greenland with
enough money to be worried about the map. In Greenland, history had
been remembered through stories, and they had always told of the ice
which covered most of the island and its seas. He knew that to look
towards Japan was not, at that time, a very smart move. Post war,
post atom bombs, the Japanese were not terribly interested in when
the West thought to include them on maps of the world. But the Americans
had both the money and the fascination to make the Vinland Map a very
valuable piece of merchandise. Enrico needed a way to sell his client's
map to an American.
But the map had no provenance, it had no history and in the 500
years from the time it was drawn to the time Enrico's services were
enlisted, there had been no mention of it anywhere. It didn't occur
in any letters, any catalogue, no mention had been made of it in any
history, any geography, and no replica or copy had been found in any
atlas. Further, the binding which attached it to the Tartar Relations
was late 19th century in origin.
Enrico took the map to a dealer with a reputation more reputable
than his own. He chose the London dealer, Joseph Davis. Davis was
interested in the map but before he could offer a price, he sent it
to the British Museum for authentication. This is what Enrico needed.
If he had sent the map to such an establishment, it would have been
looked at very suspiciously. But Davis had a fine reputation, and
sending a manuscript to the British Museum for authentication was
just part of his daily routine. At the British Museum the formidable
team of Painter, Skelton and Schoefield examined the map and the Tartar
But it wasn't smooth sailing for Enrico. The team at the British
Museum did not authenticate the map. They were particularly concerned
about certain wormholes. Somewhere in the history of the manuscript
worms had attacked the vellum. The problem was that the wormholes
in the map did not match with those in the Tartar Relations .
So while the experts could verify the Tartar Relations to
be a 15th century manuscript, the vellum containing the map had been
bound with the Relations long after the worms had done their
Joseph Davis rejected the map but at the same time purchased
from Enrico Ferrajoli a more reliable item, a fragment of a copy of
Vincent de Beauvais' Speculum Historiale . It was just a fragment
of what was really a well known and much copied text and Davis expected
to be able to sell it to a private collector more as a curiosity piece
than anything else. Davis put a notice about the fragment of the Speculum
in his international catalogue.
Later in that same year, 1957, a small-time bookseller and collector
from America, Laurence Witten, arrived in Europe specifically to purchase
While Witten was in Geneva, he visited the offices of the dealer
Nicholas Rauch, where he was told of the existence of the map. As
it so happened, Enrico Ferrajoli was also in town. Rauch arranged
a meeting and Witten became excited by the idea of purchasing a pre-Columbus
map that clearly showed parts of America. He jumped at the chance
of a viewing. Witten was perhaps less concerned as to where the manuscript
had come from and was possibly prepared to accept the spoils of someone
else's post war corruption.
Ferrajoli took him to a secret destination - the library of the
collector who owned the manuscript - and without any effort to investigate
authenticity Witten purchased the map for three and a half thousand
The names of the library and the original collector have never
been revealed. The location, even the country is not known. Enrico
Ferrajoli was Italian. He lived, after the war, in Barcelona, and
he met Witten in Geneva.
One last thing is important about Enrico Ferrajoli. Two years
after he sold the map to Witten he was arrested, tried and served
a jail sentence for selling manuscripts that had been stolen from
a Spanish cathedral in Saragossa. The time of the theft at Saragossa
coincides with Enrico's possession of the map and the subsequent sale
to Witten, but the cathedral has never claimed the map was part of
the manuscripts stolen from its library. Interestingly enough, they
have never denied it either.
Witten, delighted with his find, returned to America where he
spent time studying both the map and the Tartar Relations .
For reasons, which he has never explained, he was not in a hurry to
reveal the existence of the map nor to offer it for sale.
And now the first great coincidence occurs. Witten lived quite
close to Yale University where he had many friends and associates.
He was particularly well known to the curator of rare manuscripts
at Yale Library, a certain Trevor Marston. There were, after all,
professional reasons why the two men would know each other.
At about this time Marston purchased a manuscript from an international
catalogue. He purchased the fragment of the Speculum which
Enrico Ferrajoli had sold to the London dealer, Joseph Davis.
In due course, the manuscript arrived and it is not surprising
that Witten was invited to view the new acquisition, the fragment
of the Speculum .
All the pieces were beginning to fall into place. On viewing
the Speculum , Witten incredibly recognised the configuration
of the wormholes in the manuscript. He arranged to borrow the manuscript
and back home compared the wormholes with those in both the Vinland
Map and the Tartar Relations . He found if he placed the
Speculum between the map pages and those of the Tartar Relations
the wormholes exactly matched up.
If the wormholes matched up, then the three manuscripts, the
Relations , Speculum and the map, had been bound
together for many hundreds of years. They were only separated in the
19th century when the map and the Tartar Relations were rebound
as a single unit.
This discovery made sense of an inscription scrawled on the back
of the map. The inscription read, ' delineation of the first,
second and third parts of the Speculum'.
Witten and Marston were tremendously excited by this discovery
and it wasn't long before Yale found an anonymous donor, allowing
the library to purchase the map and the Relations from Witten
for 200,000 dollars. The Yale Library then had them rebound with the
Speculum as one.
Yale went public in as big a way as possible. In 1965, the day
before Columbus Day, they released, with much publicity, a coffee
table book containing a reproduction of the map and various articles,
translations and commentaries on its significance. It was probably
the only time an ancient map commanded headlines in most of the daily
papers. The headlines announced Yale had proof - Leif, the son of
Eirik the Red, was the true discoverer of America.
The modern part of the story had too many amazing coincidences to be
believable. And yet I knew the history of manuscripts was riddled with
such long coincidence. Little known works of great scholars had been found
on market barrows, pages of lost manuscripts had turned up as padding
in the binding of an unimportant work. But what I found unbelievable about
this story was not that the map should re-emerge after 500 years of silence,
nor that it should end up in the hands of a disreputable dealer who was
known to be involved in the theft of manuscripts. No, that was not uncommon.
What was completely unbelievable was the coincidences surrounding Witten.
But they were coincidences and questions that remained unanswered. All
the main players were now dead. Witten never revealed the name of the
library nor of the collector who originally owned the map. Enrico never
told his version of the story and Marston to the last, swore his purchasing
of the Speculum was pure coincidence.
"The thing is, Meridian," Eric said, "I don't think it
was any accident Yale University released the map to the world on the
day before Columbus Day."
"What do you mean?"
"Columbus Day in the US is a major celebration, and in particular
it's a big day for the ethnic Italian community. Columbus, the discoverer
of America, was, after all, one of theirs."
"But what does it matter? I mean there is a lot of contention over
who discovered Australia, the English or the Dutch or the... I just don't
care and nor does anyone else really. I can't see any fuss being made
if we suddenly come across a map which shows the French or the Portuguese
were the first here. Can you honestly see the English or the Dutch communities
in Australia getting upset by such a find?"
"That's now, and here. We're talking about the 50's and early 60's
and we're talking about the States. Discovery was important, nationality
was important. Just imagine how upset people would be if some historian
found documents to suggest that Australians weren't at Gallipoli and all
the heroics were carried out by the Kiwis." He stopped for a few
minutes and looked into his wineglass. "The problem is," he
continued, "the part I can't work out is, what, at that time, would
any government have to gain by stirring up anti-Italian feeling in America?"
I didn't know enough about recent American history to provide any answers
but I did think that during the Cold War governments didn't need much
justification for any number of witch-hunts. Reds were under our beds;
the Asian communities were going to fall down onto Australia by sheer
weight of numbers, sheer gravity of the globe. Countries like Korea were
sliced up like cakes, drawn up scientifically with longitude and latitudinal
lines and no thought of ethnic or geographical divisions. It was a time
of cartographic lunacy.
Eric drew a sketch of the Vinland Map. He began at the centre with the
Mediterranean Sea and then followed the line up the page filling in Spain
and France, Denmark and Scandinavia, and then let his pen swoop across
and down, as an arc, drawing in the vast outreaches of the Mongol Empire.
He continued the line and included India and Africa until he was back
at the Mediterranean Sea. I fetched the atlas with a copy of the map and
he drew in the islands of Japan on one side of the map and on the other
he filled in the space he had left for the Atlantic Ocean. He drew England
and Ireland, Iceland and Greenland and several of the smaller Atlantic
islands. And then on the far left of the page he drew the three parts
of the Americas: Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. Then he shaded in the
places where the wormholes had damaged the map.
He drew the map confidently.
I watched and remarked on how much of the map could be drawn without
moving the pen off the paper. Most of the world was joined and spread
itself around the Mediterranean Sea - the centre of the mapmaker's world.
We talked for a time of cartography, how it uses a language like any
other, how it sets up conventions that somehow became fixed in our imagination.
We finished the last of the wine. Eric held his almost empty glass up
to the light and deep in thought rolled the last few drops of wine around
in his glass. "It's odd isn't it," he said, "how some presume
maps are about human ideas and knowledge, when they are really about human
I wondered about the link between human perceptions of the world and
the maps we draw of it. I remembered another map and drew it for Eric.
I drew a child-like outline of a polar bear, a profile. Inside of that
drawing I drew the exact same outline, only much smaller, so that one
bear contained the other. Then I drew a series of bear prints, curving
under the whole drawing, as an arced horizon. "Now that's another
map. It intrigues me just as much, but I know this one's origin."
He picked up my drawing. "But this one is a map of culture."
"And so, at least for me, is the Vinland Map." I hadn't used
the phrase 'a map of culture', but now Eric had mentioned it the idea
clung to me.
I looked at Eric's drawing of the map and also at the one printed in
the atlas. It was such a simple map and with the obvious exclusion of
the legends, they were quite similar. I had another version of it I'd
found amongst my father's papers. That one was a facsimile on vellum,
but oddly enough, it didn't include the wormholes. Somehow without that
disfigurement the facsimile seemed less real, even from Eric's version.
As a cartographer I knew maps are like novels, they sing the story of
the mapmaker, they tell us what the cartographer notices, what is considered
important, what is considered worth mapping. Why do we map one thing and
not another? Why do we map contours of hills but not directions of winds,
or flights of birds, or the shadows drawn by the sun? Like other maps
then, the Vinland Map was a fingerprint of the cartographer or the forger
and it was a fingerprint that intrigued me. Who was this person who thought
to include Greenland, the islands of the Atlantic, India, Japan, and the
coast of Newfoundland, named as the Norse named it? Who had taken the
trouble to record the names of Mongolia, the names in Africa, the reference
to Prester John, the legendary 12th century Christian whose empire was
somewhere in India. Who was this person with such a vision of the world?
Eric picked up the glasses and carried them into the kitchen. It was
getting late. I saw him to his car. It was a clear autumn night, the stars
brighter than any other time of year. I pointed to a constellation I knew
from childhood, the scorpion.
"Another map." Eric said good-heartedly. "Like your polar
bear. Do you know the other constellations?"
I didn't and neither did he. Just before Eric drove away he said, "I
think I'm fascinated with the map because it's so very Greenlandic. Who
else would know their frozen land is an island? And who else would bother
mapping all those small Atlantic islands but a sea-faring race?"
He continued, "What interests me about the map has nothing to do
with who discovered America, it has to do with finding out more about
the Norse, the people from Iceland and Greenland." He paused. "You
see, for them to know that Greenland is an island they would have had
to accept the knowledge, the mythology and the stories of the native people,
the ones they called the Skraeling, the wretches. I like the fact that
they might have done this. That they might not have been completely biased
against these people. That the imagination of the Skraelings might have
become part of the imagination of the Norse."
"You're just tracing your identity."
"Isn't that what you're doing?" He smiled and winding up his
window, he drove away.
As I walked into my house, the phone was ringing. I almost let it go
to the answering machine as it was late and I didn't feel like bothering
with anything. But some apprehension made me pick up the receiver. It
was the police. They were careful not to alarm me. They wanted to know
if I'd seen the old woman who had been carted away from my gate. She was
missing again and they thought... I rang off. It was late. I wasn't going
to go out looking for a stranger.
As I turned out my house lights I thought of her bright purple hat. Somewhere
it was reflecting the stars.
Quite late in the night I woke, disturbed by a sound. I listened intently,
terrified of an intruder. But it was the sound of the old woman's chant.
It appeared to be coming from the front veranda, so in the dark I made
my way to the front room and looked out of the window. She was sitting
on the veranda; her purple hat caught the moonlight. She rocked with her
I turned on the front light and went outside to her. The light startled
her a little and then she simply grunted, as if she was annoyed I had
kept her for so long.
"You sleep too well," she said, and waved the situation away
as if it was an annoying insect. She stared at me, and for the second
time I felt something uneasy, strange. I was not afraid of her; there
was something else. I found it too difficult to put my finger on. Something
which made me cautious, wary.
Her voice became very clear and she continued to stare at me as she spoke.
"Make haste girlie! Make haste! We have no more time for your rationality.
I didn't understand her. I took a step towards her but she put up her
hand to stop me coming closer. "We have so little time. Listen! In
the distance, coming closer. Can't you hear it? Can't you hear the uniped
And with that she stood up and made her way out onto the street and the
darkness of the night. I didn't try to stop her but held tight her words
which wrapped themselves around me like a cloak of smoke. I took them
inside with me. I took them inside of me and let them become part of my
It was Thursday, the day Crete had arranged to meet Gabbett. She woke
early. She rang me. It was too early. She wanted to talk. I wanted to
sleep. She was nervous. She'd dressed carefully. This was the day she
and Gabbett were planning to make some decisions. I find it odd how people
can earmark a day in the calendar for decisions, how on this day, at this
time, over this cup of coffee, you'll know what to do. It's as if the
times and the places in our lives for decision making are fixed, mapped
out before us like some astrological prediction. I find it all too neat
to be believable. I prefer to let life flow, to take up the whim of the
moment, the wind of circumstance.
Over breakfast Crete rang a second time. She still wanted advice about
her clothing. I told her what she had on sounded fine. It didn't help.
I knew she'd ring again but I didn't feel up to it, I didn't know what
else to say to her. It was not a good time to be by my phone so I decided
to spend the day in the library. There was a manuscript I wanted to view.
It wasn't part of my current work but it did interest me.
Martha, the Rare Books librarian, greeted me as I entered her section.
She was a tall woman in her fifties with distinctive grey hair that she
wore long and loosely tied back into a ponytail. Although I had known
her for some years, it was on this occasion that I was particularly struck
by her beauty. Perhaps it was seeing her in her own environment which
caught my eye, seeing her surrounded by the glassed shelves of rare and
precious books. It was something about her as the collector, the carer
for the ancient and valuable fragments of our history, which radiated
from her and gave her face a remarkable poise and self-composure. She
smiled as I walked towards her.
How much is missed, I thought, by those who always seek to find beauty
in the superficial or in the young.
Crete waited at the airport for Gabbett. His plane was late and
she drank three cups of coffee trying not to think about the future
too much. She sat at one of the back tables in the airport cafe; the
last thing she wanted to happen now was to come across someone who
As she drank her third cup, she tried to picture Gabbett coming
through the arrivals gate. She thought of the word she'd used to describe
him. Neat. That much she knew. Gabbett, a large man, was trim and
neat and had sandy colouring. He smiled a lot, took small steps and
he wore perfumes, aftershave or something. And there was a gold signet
ring on his left hand. Did he also wear a wedding ring? She was trying
to remember as the loud speaker announced the arrival of his plane.
She made her way to the arrivals lounge and hung back in case
someone else was also there to meet him. He came through and with
his predictable smile scanned the faces of the crowd for her. Yes,
'neat' would be the best word to describe him. Other lovers she'd
called distinguished, or easy-going, or larger-than-life, or loud,
or awkward. But Gabbett was neat, and for whatever reason she liked
this neatness. She noticed his signet ring, she'd been right about
that, and there wasn't a wedding ring. Had he taken it off for this
She went up to him and touched his arm. She felt a huge need for
secrecy, for decorum, for remoteness in such a public place. He understood
and they collected his luggage, an overnight bag and a heavier case
filled with notes and videos.
I shared with Martha a preciousness for libraries. They were almost sacred
places for me and I could chart much of my life by listing the libraries
I had read or worked in. And while it is true that I had known perhaps
as many libraries as men, with only one exception it was the libraries
I remembered with greater affection. The exception, of course, was a scholar,
and it is hard for me now to think of him in any way separate from his
books. He had three passions: he collected dictionaries and had some of
the earliest examples in the language, including Johnson's; he spent many
hours repairing old grandfather clocks; and he loved me in a way I can
only now begin to understand. For him the three passions went hand in
hand, although it was a combination I found curious. Perhaps it all had
something to do with husbandry. I'm not sure. Husbandry is a concept I
have always found difficult to grasp.
The clocks seldom worked, no matter how much he tinkered with them; I
left, too charged with life to appreciate the sanctuary he had built around
me; but the dictionaries were another matter. They delighted me. At the
time I was only beginning my lifelong love affair with Latin and I think
now that perhaps my time spent reading his early dictionaries, hunting
for the etymology of a word or a particular meaning, sparked in me a great
curiosity about that ancient language which gave birth to so much of English.
I saw Latin as the mother language, and unlike those who approach it dressed
in ecclesiastical robes, I came to her as a feminist, as a woman interested
in the birthing process of words and language. Like its mother, Carmentis
the legendary founder of Latin, I made the language mine.
They made their way to Crete's car and there, shielded from open
gaze, they embraced as lovers.
And when I think of books I cannot help but think of my father's collection
of rare and precious atlases, the ones where I found his pages of notes.
Those books would be my most precious possessions, not because of their
market value, but because they somehow contain the essence, the memory,
of him. When I want to remember him I go into my study and take down this
or that atlas. I sit with it quietly. I turn each page and I hunt in the
ancient maps for the lines of his hands, the lines on the back of his
neck, the creases around his smile. I remember him.
As a child they held a different mystery, and much as I might have longed
to spend private hours with these ancient atlases, I could not lift them
from their shelves. Looking at them was something I always did with him.
There was a ritual to this viewing that gave the occasion importance.
In the privacy of his study we would put on our white cotton gloves, his
large hands next to my tiny ones. Gloved, he would take down the required
volume, and sitting me on his knee, he'd open the ancient cover. These
maps were not like any ordinary map; they mapped fantasy and wild unseen
animals, they mapped stories and all the creatures of my imagination.
There was one atlas I especially remember. It was a volume of the maps
of Africa: that great continent which changed its shape from map to map,
where mountains and rivers and animals were drawn on the land and wondrous
dragon-like creatures lingered in the sea. In other atlases there were
galleons and cherubs that blew the four great winds. There were huge creatures
from the sky that held the earth in its place in the heavens, and there
were lands so mysterious they filled my dreams and play.
Those childhood moments with my father have stayed with me. The memories
are filled with the feeling of safety, the musk and male smell of his
study, and the sanctuary of his love.
Crete drove out of the city. She had decided to take Gabbett to
her house by the sea, an hour or more drive through the countryside.
She felt nervous and Gabbett was keen to talk. She drove and listened
as he told her parts of his life story. They neared the house and
her nervousness returned. This house had become something of a sanctuary
for her; a sacred place where she rekindled her spirits and dreamt
solutions to her biggest problems. Why had she been so certain to
bring Gabbett here? It had been four years since she'd brought a lover
to this place.
I grew up and became less interested in my father's atlases. I began
to think of his study as small and old fashioned, and his books as musty
and far too familiar to offer me anything new. Instead, I busied myself
with the trivia of a young girl, with nail polish and stockings and learning
how to walk in high heels. I was thirteen, preoccupied with myself and
poised on the brink of womanhood when one day I found myself, quite by
accident, in the hall of a great library. I will never forget that day,
The Fifth Mandala - Marvel
I told no one. After school, just before my thirteenth birthday,
I walked up the steps and made my way through to the foyer of a building
that had fascinated me. I had seen people enter and leave it and I
knew some public activity took place inside of it, but I had no idea
of its purpose.
I remember feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as I climbed
those stairs and approached the foyer. I was a child-woman, and as
a child-woman I was about to enter knowledge.
I opened the foyer doors and stepped into the labyrinth.
The library was the length of a cathedral and not unlike one in proportions.
In Gothic style, the tall roof was arched in dark wood panelling and
the walls were lined with the muted and dark tones of books. A series
of stairwells and mezzanine floors led to more and more shelves, more
and more levels. Browns, maroons, dark blues, greens and blacks seem
to melt into the shadows and the wooden shelving, melt into the walls
and the alcoves, creating that stilled atmosphere of the sacred. In
both the ambience of the great hall and within myself there was a
hush, as if I had accidentally entered a holy place.
I will never forget that first sight. Nothing had prepared me, nor
would it again infect me with such awe. It wasn't just the sheer number
of books that impressed me; it was the library itself, the thing of
a library, the idea or notion of a library. Until that moment, I could
imagine a bookshop, a pile of books, shelves of books, even a wall
of books. But I had no idea that filled the category of library. No
idea that filled the sacredness of the place, the way the books were
housed with such reverence.
I had approached a great body, the mother of knowledge, the keeper
of books, the protector of ideas, and I was overawed by her.
As I stood at the entrance I could easily see the various levels
of mezzanine floors, the rows and rows of shelves stacked tightly
with books. I could see the desks, the low lights, the librarians,
and the readers. It seemed exposed to me, almost naked. And yet as
soon as I began to look at the books I discovered the true nature
of the labyrinth of libraries. I had no knowledge of how the books
were ordered, shelved, catalogued. I did not know how knowledge had
been divided into discrete areas, how we had ordered the canon, excluding
and including, selecting, arranging and combining knowledge, banishing
some ideas into the esoteric or as a hobby, and inflating others into
philosophy or religion. As a child-woman I had no knowledge of how
one remedy could be categorised as scientific and another as superstition.
I had no knowledge of the ordering of thought. The library was for
me a great temple of books which might as well have been stored by
size, or colour, as by any other system. I had no map by which to
read the library and so I set to, familiarising myself, as I might
now in some new and foreign city.
Each day after school I went to the library. It was something I did
in secret and told no one, not even my parents. At first, I was contented
to simply sit in an alcove, any alcove, and read books at random.
But after a few days I began to leave traces amongst the books, a
trail to re-find one I had enjoyed and wanted to view again. Like
Ariadne, I devised methods to map my path. I counted bays, left a
book upside down in the shelf, another one sitting on top of the shelf,
and so forth. But my system kept breaking down. So many times I returned,
only to find the thread broken, the marker book re-shelved correctly,
the paper I had left on a table, removed.
I knew there was a system and I began to ask my father, as obliquely
as a thirteen-year-old girl could, about libraries and the ordering
of books. It didn't take him long to extract from me that I had been
visiting the public reference library after school. Perhaps, because
joy and guilt have a way of cohabiting in the mind of a teenage girl,
I was sure he would forbid me to go there again - the library was
somehow too pleasurable a place, too sacred a place for me to be allowed
to visit it legitimately.
The next day, and without too much joy, I called into his office
as he had asked me to do. But to my great delight he walked me back
to the library and let me show him what I had discovered. Gently,
for he was a very gentle man, he drew my attention to the numbers
on the books, and we played a kind of detective game over the next
few weeks until I had worked out the basics of the catalogue system.
I remembered my first library as some might their baptism or their first
communion. The library had become my temple and I viewed it nostalgically.
Since then of course I have grown and changed, as libraries have. Now
it's all electronic searching and catalogues, neon lights, liquid displays,
vinyl, metals, creams and beige colour schemes, shopfront windows and
controlled atmospheres. These days any schoolgirl knows a library is as
close as a computer terminal. We have taken the Latin out of the mass
and the mystery out of libraries. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing.
And here I stood, in this modern library, waiting to view an ancient
book, one scribed five hundred years ago, hoping to catch in its pages,
its texture, its feel, something of medieval life. How different libraries
must have been then, how much rarer, how much more sacred. It seemed obvious
to me that they were part of monasteries and convents. The library, a
sacred place of ideas to balance the chapel, the sacred place of belief.
Perhaps, I thought, I was becoming a little too nostalgic.
Crete and Gabbett arrived at the house, a stone cottage set in
an elaborate and perhaps old fashioned garden with statuary, formal
beds, shrubs and trees. The path to the door led through a walled
rose garden where the pennyroyal grass broke perfume with their steps.
She took him into her house.
She needed to talk and it seemed natural to gravitate to the kitchen.
There, like a domestic couple, they stood arm in arm, and he rocked
her gently as she spoke of her life and this place. They both knew
they would make love shortly but she had to tell him things first,
she had to ease her nervousness. She didn't explain, because she couldn't,
why she had brought Gabbett there, why after so much time, she had
taken a lover to this place.
She had brought sheets for the bed and towels for the bathroom,
milk and butter for the fridge, and some other food stuffs in case
they stayed for breakfast. She unpacked the few things. But there
was something too premeditated about putting the sheet on the bed.
She fumbled with it, tried to joke. She felt inept and gauche, and
shy of her nakedness as a novitiate is shy of her knowledge to come.
They made love: a little too quickly; a little too hungrily; a little
Martha had collected the illuminated manuscript from the vault and she
had also brought two other, less prestigious, manuscripts from the same
period for me to inspect as a comparison. The latter two volumes were
held in her collection but the one I had come to see was on loan from
a private collector. I had brought with me a new pair of white gloves;
such a special volume deserved the newness of the cloth. As I prepared
to open the books I thought again of my father's papers, his use of Greenlandic,
his translation of the old uniped story and the utter plainness and undecorated
nature of the Vinland Map itself. I thought of the facsimile - someone
had taken the trouble to draw the map on two sheets of vellum but had
not completed the task. I thought it odd that my father had chosen to
keep that particular copy of the map which, like the book I had come to
view, claimed to be a 15th century work.
I cleared my head of my father's trivia. The volume I had come to view
was a Parisian manuscript, and the other two were English. They were all
the Book of Hours and were all from the 15th century. I saved the best
The Parisian manuscript was made as a special presentation volume. The
entire volume was produced by one artist, (I use that term rather than
'scribe' for this book). He had felt confident enough to break with convention,
not just in his use of colour but also in the way he played with the margins,
letting the design, here and there, tilt over the edge. Each page was
decorated with a combination of delicate geometrical designs that acted
like a lattice holding flowers, insects, birds and grotesquerie. Blue
was the dominant colour, with greens and reds as contrast. Gold and white
were used as highlights. Martha pointed out to me the unusualness of the
colouration and in particular the use of white.
The text was scribed almost completely without fault. There was an evenness
in both the hand and the colour of the ink. Unlike the first two manuscripts
I viewed, this one was without corrections and without comments or drawings
in the margins. It was, from its very inception, a precious book and for
five hundred years had managed to maintain that aura.
Handling the manuscripts I could not help thinking of the scribe, so
long dead, who came each morning to his place in the scriptorium. How
he might select another leaf of vellum, having the pick of the signatures,
selecting one piece over another for its whiteness of colour, its evenness
of thickness. Would he cut and draw up the margins on the vellum or would
he have had an assistant? Could nothing be left to chance? How did time
and temperature, the variation of seasons and events impress itself upon
his work? Was that one of his challenges? Was it difficult to keep the
consistency of vellum from one section to the next, from one season to
the next? Was skin from one herd so different from another? Did winter-killed
cattle yield a different texture from one that had been slaughtered and
tanned in the summer? And the pigments he mixed for inks - did he need
to store ingredients between seasons or scrounge from others when something
was in short supply? Were there dyes that had to come from distant places,
minerals whose availability was always at risk of shipwrecks, wars, bandit
raids or the variance of caravans? What would it be like, I wondered,
to give your life to such a task, to know each waking morning what lies
ahead of you, to fall asleep dreaming of the next illumination, the next
piece of text to transcribe, the next piece of vellum to prepare and paginate?
Would it offer a very peaceful existence where contemplation and meditation
could easily fill the other moments of the day? Or would each new page
present such a challenge that it mirrored the dissonance of the outside
world? Was his daily task of walking to the scriptorium no different from
the painter's task - she walks down the side streets to her studio and
makes herself a cup of coffee, she stares at the canvas in front of her,
and all the while, colours and textures, sounds of traffic, the bark of
a dog, the problems of her lover, the newspaper's headlines, all fill
her head and brush, until, bursting, she paints? She paints to avoid,
she paints to create, she paints to become part of, and she paints to
understand. Was it the same for this scribe? What thoughts were going
through his mind when he penned this or that text?
I shook my head. Such romantic notions were coming from my own malaise
and weariness. And yet to study anything at all from the medieval period
I knew I'd also have to know something of the lives of those who lived
in it. Was that what my father was doing? Did he plot the tides, translate
the sagas to try to understand something of the lives of the Norse explorers?
Or was he trying to discover something of the life of the scribe who in
the 15th century turned those stories and sagas into the Vinland Map?
I turned another page of the manuscript and the vellum rustled in my
gloved hand. I have never learnt to turn such ancient pages with any dignity
and my fingers, clothed in gloves, fumbled and wrestled with the manuscript
as I tried to avoid straining the binding or damaging the pages. I found
the middle section of the manuscript the most difficult to physically
manage and felt unsure as to how to hold the book in order to minimise
any damage to the spine. I had no doubts Crete would have been particularly
deft in her gloved fingers and probably knew of some trick in tackling
the middle section. Indeed, (and she had been the one to advise me that
the manuscript was in the library), she had impressed upon me the need
to take the time and effort to view the middle of the manuscript.
Crete had been right. In the middle of the manuscript I found sheets
of vellum that had not discoloured with age. They were a much whiter colour
and the lines the scribe had drawn to guide his pen were easily visible.
The colour of the ink was strongest here and the illuminations brightest.
The ornamentation, as earlier, consisted of leaves of ivy and grapevines
with a treillage of wild flowers, daisies, violas, thistles roses and
stocks. Strawberries and grapes were worked into the pattern. On other
pages, drawings of animals intertwined with strange mythical beasts and
grotesquerie made up the borders. Again, blues, bright with concealment,
dominated the colouration. There were highlights in green, white and gold.
Miniatures were worked into the initial letters: one of the Visitation;
another of Saint Anthony, or was it one of the Apostles? And then I came
across a full-page illumination. It depicted Christ seated on his heavenly
throne. He held, in his left hand, the tables and canon of the Church
while his right hand was raised iconographically in a blessing. Winged
lions, birds and angels circled him while below was the orb of the earth.
The dominant colour here was maroon with whites, golds and greens were
used to pick out the detail and exaggerate the grandeur. Blue had been
left for the orb of the earth and the heavenly sky. A great deal of time
had been taken on the illumination, a great deal of detail had been given
to the word of this god.
I shut the manuscript and held it in my hand. Was it the lightness of
the vellum, the lightness of the manuscript that made me think of it as
other than a book?
The perfection of the manuscript was offered, as a prayer might be, to
the embodiment of god's design. It was an act of teleology, a reflection
of the perfection of the universe. Teleology , what a neat and tidy
word we give to something as awesome and as mysterious as the design and
craft of life and the universe. The word felt too abstract and I felt
cheated of any language which could describe my feelings. It was as if
the words I searched for belonged to some other time, some other part
of history where objects were infected with spirits and where gods existed
for every nook and cranny of our lives. I needed the language of saint's
days and burning candles and miracles and indulgences and novenas. I needed
the language of stained glass windows, of tolling bells, of altar bells,
of organs and choirs, reverberation and incense. I needed the language
of the soprano whose voice rises in clear rounded tones above the texture
of harmonies filling the stone arches of the cathedral. I needed the language
of an empty church, the echo of my footsteps on stone floors, the smell
of polished wood, the hardness of the pews.
Five hundred years ago I would have touched its pages with my naked hands,
but not now. And yet now, at the beginning of the 21st century, I felt
awkward in the knowledge that its pages had touched me. It was almost
as if time had concertinaed, squashing together in an unspoken alliance,
the scribe sitting at his desk and me, sitting here at mine.
I put the manuscript down. How different it was to the Vinland Map, in
comparison a scruffy, hurriedly drawn diagram without any decoration or
adornment. And yet this beautiful manuscript sat virtually forgotten by
history while the map had caught the imagination of nations.
I took off my gloves.
In Martha's company I left the library.
The sun was beginning to fade. Crete left Gabbett to sleep while
she prepared the house for nightfall. She set and lit fires in the
lounge room and in the wood stove in the kitchen. She brought water
in from the well and filled the wood baskets with enough logs to keep
them warm all night. She set and lit the bedroom fire last so as not
to disturb his sleep, but she found him crying, lying in the dark
He turned away, angry that she had discovered him weeping. She
said nothing. She put a match to the fire.
Before long the room was lit by the fire's warmth. The room felt
safer, cheerier now. Arm in arm they sat on the bed and almost absent-mindedly
Gabbett stroked her breasts. "We have to talk." He said.
She nodded. She knew.
By the time Crete and Gabbett had left the house to find themselves
an evening meal they had decided to live together. Crete felt giddy
with the speed of their relationship. She had to tell her children
and she didn't know how she was going to do it. He had to tell his
wife and he knew exactly how he was going to do that. Recently he
had rehearsed that moment many, many times.
That night, after they had made love and the fire had burnt down
to grey ash, Gabbett sleepily nestled his face on Crete's breast.
He took her nipple in his mouth and suckled until he fell asleep.
And they slept that way, Crete cradling his head to her breast and
Gabbett's lips, loosely closed around her nipple. It was not until
dawn that either of them moved from this position.
At dawn Crete stirred and moved herself down in the bed so that
she now could lie with her head on Gabbett's chest. He put his arms
around her and they went back to sleep.
What they had discovered through the night and through their dreaming,
was that they perfectly matched, they perfectly filled, each other's