Hunger's Brides
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"Grandfather's library"

Sor Juana's window

from a description in "Library," book II of Hunger's Brides...

As a young girl, Juana had to wait years to be admitted to her grandfather's great library. Finally the moment had come...

 

The morning after my grandfather's return I was up early, and it was back to the watchtower I went now. Not to watch the sunrise, as Amanda and I had used to, but to keep an eye on Abuelo's room for the first signs of stirring. It took hours by the time he had washed up for breakfast then shuffled back after it from the dining room. By then I was freezing even under the heavy wool blankets I had dragged off my bed.

       Beside the well a pastilla1 of ice sealed the full bucket over, as if with wax. A light frost glittered on the slate flagstones. Grandfather rocked his way over them unsteadily, cautiously, as if his soles hurt. Heedless, I raced down the steps and across the courtyard after him.

       I caught up as he reached the library door. He looked surprised to see me - was he teasing or had he really forgotten? Then I noticed that despite the cold, the cloak he wore was not his heaviest but the formal one. And from the gentle smile spreading across that big face I felt sure he'd remembered all along.

       "Si la damisela sonriente would do me the honour...." He moved aside, and with a little bow invited me in ahead of him.

       I stepped across that threshold for the first time. I couldn't help glancing down - half-afraid that whatever force had prevented me all this while might even now reach out to trip me up.

       And then I was inside.

       He did not follow right away. Feeling him watching, I walked in a fashion I hoped sedate straight down the narrow aisle I had probed ten thousand times with my eyes. Right to the end, to the huge, broad desk where it sat edged in sunlight beneath the window. Beyond the bars I could see the mountain tops, but I had to stand on tiptoe now to see the roofs of the sheds above the window ledge.

       According to my calculations - and depending on the thickness of the books, their arrangement and the height of the shelves, which after all ran almost to the ceiling - there just had to be space for three, perhaps, four thousand volumes. I was sure I had read part or all of almost fifteen hundred books. So as I turned now from that first aisle - the only one I had seen all the way to the end of, no matter how I'd craned and stretched and crouched - I was nearly strangling in the anticipation of making two or three thousand new friends. Whom might I find at this next turn, what great teacher stood ready to meet me in the very next aisle?

       It was the coolness in the room that struck me, as if the books still stored the night's chill within their covers. Then I noticed the smells, all familiar, and in a familiar combination, but until now never anything but faint. Leather, most of all, and glue, the mustiness of mildew and dust, tobacco from the pouch on the desk, the wool of Abuelo's cloak ... together it was these that had smelled to me once like fresh dough rising in an oven.

       I went down the next row. I ran a finger through the dust thick on the shelves - and along leather spines and over stamped titles, tapping hello to old friends. Though I could discern no particular system or order, a surprising number in these first rows were familiar.

       All together, it was a lot of books. And yet as I crept along the aisles there could be no doubt: I had over-estimated. Gaps of varying sizes separated clusters of books. Not a single shelf was tightly filled. Towards the back on the north side, closest to the kitchen, some of the upper shelves were bare or with just a book or two at each end of a row. The idea of a theatrical set came to mind. Had there been more books once, perhaps while we were still in Nepantla? Or was it possible that in the years since, during each trip to Mexico, he had been taking more books away than he'd brought new ones back? Lost in thought I began to close the circuit of the room, coming back along the west wall, on whose outer side I had sat, so many times, beneath the arcades at the little table under the window. How curious the sensation to be standing at that window now, not peering furtively in but gazing out, at the Hammock of the Sacred Nap slung between the columns. As my eyes wandered out into the sunlit courtyard beyond, I tried not to think too much about what I might be feeling.

       In the far corner was an armchair whose existence I should have guessed at before this. The little chess set, on this side of it, I had seen many times through the window on the far side of the doorway.

       I had read almost all of the books. I hadn't three hundred left.

       After a moment I became aware of Abuelo sitting at his desk over an open book and was glad he hadn't been watching my face. I came up the aisle behind him and a little to one side. I was struck for the first time by his frailty. He was not much taller than Isabel now. From the front, his face was full and round, though no longer so brown, a little yellowed even. The bristling mane, once once red-brown, was almost pure white, with just traces of cinnamon. In profile, his head if anything looked heavier - the heavy jowls and loose folds swung under his chin like a bull's. At the dinner table his dewlap hung like a small bib as he frowned over the slippery quarry on his plate. But from the back, his neck was frail as a stalk holding up the great head of a sunflower.

       He turned in his chair and smiled as I drew near. "Welcome, Angelina," he said, holding out his hand, "I hope we have not left it too long...."

       I took his big trembling hand between mine - resting my left in his palm, supporting both with my right as if to cradle a sprain. It was only as I opened my mouth to reply that I caught sight of something on the ceiling.

       The construction was the same as elsewhere in the house: pitch-blackened oak rafters the width of my hand and spaced a little less than a vara apart. Perpendicular to these and cutting the room into three were two massive transverse beams propped on rough-hewn pillars as thick as my waist. Then. Over the desk the rafters formed panels, a triptych, and spanning it - crudely painted, though skillfully drafted - there floated a host of angels. Mouth agape, head tipped back on the hinge of my jaw I just stood there staring as Abuelo proudly pointed out to me the angelic choirs, fashioned from jewels as man was from clay.

       "Just as the genii are," he added, his eyes glowing, "from a fire of gemstones. Or so say the Moors." Craning up as he was, the loose dewlap drew almost taut, like the bib of a pelican bolting a fish.

       There hovered the archangels Gabriel, the messenger, and Uriel, God's fire. Cherubs, seraphs - there in all their celestial orders, the thrones and principalities, the virtues and powers - all the angels in their seven choirs. Here, just beyond my outstretched arm, was a thing I'd never dreamed of:

       My grandfather loved angels, the sight, the very thought of them.

       I was willing to admit there was much I didn't know about him, but his love of angels had been here all along - so close, just out of sight. How fine it was to see him excited again, to be there with him - in, not just looking in - standing together beneath the nine celestial orders. Silently I thanked each one for their heavenly intervention in conveying me here at last.

       What he told me next was if anything a greater surprise. My mother had drawn these for him, when she was almost exactly my age.

       "When she had finished it for me," he said, "she never came in again. Our classes of reading were over." Not long after, she stopped sketching too.

[]

For the next few days I was in the library at first light, anxious that no one intercept me, anxious, perhaps, not to see Amanda standing at my bedside, her brown eyes brimming with accusation.

       First I lit the lamp above his desk, then lit a lantern and went along ranks still in darkness shifting books, shifting shadows, from shelf to shelf. Piled on the left of the desk were the four titles he was working through. Jumbled over the other side were, he said with a shrug of excuse, the dozen or so he hadn't gotten to reshelving. But reshelve them where? If there was a system, he'd been quite at a loss to explain it, and so he consented to a minor tidying up - I wouldn't disturb him, would do whatever I could before he was even awake.

       But as the work proceeded, he began grumbling at the sudden descent of a celestial order fanning now in ever-wider spirals from his desk. By way of reassurance I decided to recite the entire index of everything I'd reshelved so far - where I'd put each volume and why - as he sat dazed beneath the angels, his chair backed against the wall. After a minute of this he raised his hands. "If I need something - "

       "Anything at all, Abuelito. I'll fetch it right away."

       I collected all the books I had left to read and put them alone on three bare shelves at the far end of the room. One hundred seventy-four in all. I would have to make them last. And no more skipping chapters - I would read everything, cover to cover, and go back over all the ones I had left unfinished.

       In my eagerness to share our library I found myself, during Abuelo's naps, dipping into the books he was reading too. I had the idea of teasing him, by sketching things - objects, people, towns - mentioned in the first few pages beyond his bookmarks, where I then inserted the sketches for him to find. Into a work on the hydrology and drainage works in Mexico City, I slipped the picture of an aqueduct and a good likeness of Abuelo at the top standing next to me, each of us holding a mattock. In another book, an account of Magellan's explorations, I hid a simple map of Tierra del Fuego: at the tip, mountains and fog, and Abuelo and I dressed as tars, waving banners and holding up oars. And then there was a report by an early friar in America, and in that one was a drawing of the horse - rendered as a two-headed deer - that the Mexica spies had drawn for Moctezuma. I turned ahead a page or two and slipped my own rendering in for Abuelo to admire.

       Much of the morning my grandfather would spend softly dozing in the armchair, or nodding over his desk ... under his neck the folds and fine creases filling like a small bellows finely ribbed with whale-bone. When after a week Abuelo still hadn't said anything, I began to wonder if he was reading at all.

       Then one morning as I sat quietly in the armchair in the corner, a book in my lap, my elbows straight out in order to reach the armrests, a great roar burst from the general direction of the desk.

       "Now she reads my books!"

       I giggled nervously, no longer quite sure of my joke. "Juana Inés, come here - ¡ahorita mismo!" Not Angelina, not even Angel.... As I edged toward him he turned - chin tucked, neck ruffed like an ancient grouse in display.

       I thought he might really be furious.

       Finally I saw the smile in his eyes. "You shelve my books, only you know where. Now you read them, what's next for me ... examinations?"

       Indispensable at last.

       And so the rest of our mornings together passed. Eventually I returned to Reverend Kircher's Egyptian Oedipus and only with regret came to the end. For a long while I sat with the book in my lap. With a fingertip I traced the colophon: it presented an engraving of Harpocrates, the Greek Horus, holding a finger to his lips. Was he saying, I wondered, that there were mysteries that went beyond speech, or else secrets that should not be spoken?

       As for our afternoons they passed once again as they'd used to, Abuelito snoring away in the hammock while I worked at the table outside. Waking usually with a snort, he would clamber down from the hammock with little grunts and sighs, and we would sit talking things over until dinner. We spoke of the arts of falconry and armoury, of knights and wars and crusades. We consulted on the case of poor King Frederick II ... it was very sad. A man utterly obsessed. Such was his passion for falconry that he once abandoned a battle - during a Crusade, a siege of Jerusalem, no less; he simply left the field to go hawking. Abuelo thought probably he had captured some great falconer or other among the Saracens and was determined to learn his secrets before fate, Allah or God could cheat Frederick of his prize. How could one fail to feel a certain empathy, even kinship, for such an unfortunate? And as we talked of the Holy Land, Abuelo remembered the Pharaohs, who had been such keen hawkers they were often embalmed with their best falcons.... Egypt again, whether I looked for it or not. If all roads led to Rome, they led there through Egypt.

       From the little table I looked through the window into our library. This was just the beginning of the great store Abuelo and I would one day have. Here would be my place of visions - mi claustro,2 my magician's cave. Not Ixayac. Here I would build up a collection worthy of the studiolo of a princess. So much more than the cell on the hill in far off Nepantla, this felt like the place I had been born to, and wrenched from.i In here, I would find the missing part of me.

       I hardly saw Amanda in that time, aside from at supper, and I had no answer for the platter of trout. From inside the library, when I thought of Ixayac, I thought only of the maddening riddles I could not solve and all the changes Amanda never wanted to hear of. But being here in the library was a change, too, wasn't it? A wonderful one. In the teachings of Thrice-Great Hermes, it said the acolyte's frustrations were to grow to such a violent pitch that he became as a stranger to the world - as surely mine had, but if things had gone slightly awry up at Ixayac, maybe it was for trying to say something that shouldn't be said. Maybe certain riddles were solved alone. Which is why I didn't really want to talk to Amanda right now. Or no, I told myself next, I had simply tried to fly too soon, before I'd understood the simpler lessons all around me. Could it be said any better than Hypatia herself had?

       Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

       When I had found wisdom in instruction, when I had solved the equations and deciphered the hermetic messages written in the heavens in living gemfire, when I had found at last my talent - then I would be ready to fly, too.

       Or no ... in searching for a magic ceremony I'd let myself forget the distinction Paracelsus made between magician and magus, for the true magus concerns himself not with the supernatural but with natural forces as yet unseen or misapprehended. Here was the work of discovery going on all over Europe, the great work I could be part of.

       And yet this was also much like the great life and work Hypatia had led. Neither then nor later could I ever quite let go of the riddles in her death, in its savagery, in her nakedness and defilement.

 

1 lozenge, troche

2 in Spanish either 'cloister' or 'womb'

i Aside from the mention of magic, the concepts in this paragraph are a direct borrowing - be it tribute or theft - from Octavio Paz's Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith, cf. page 80.

 

 

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