(in Olaziregi, M.J. (comp.) An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, 2004)
(Translated by Kristin Addis)
AN UNKNOWN MEDIEVAL WOMAN POET
Virginia Ossiani, reporting from Gubbio
Gubbio is gray. Its rooftops are gray, the walls of its houses are gray, gray are the paving stones of its streets. This gray is not slate however. Gubbio was built of stronger and nobler stones; even the Palazzo dei Consoli is made of the same stone, a rigid mass there upon the gray hill, in the center of the medieval part of town, casting its shadow from one side of the square plaza that looks out over the village.
The visitor who comes to Gubbio will see this from below: a gray-stoned medieval village going straight up from left to right on a small hill, the enormous silhouette of the Palazzo the balancing point for the rows of houses.
Our traveler doesn't know what he will find here. In fact, Gubbio's only fame is as the town where Saint Francis famously spoke with the wolf, and the traveler arrives from Assisi having already had his fill of tourist hoopla centering around the saint. Perhaps because of this, he appreciates the medieval authenticity of the gray houses clustered together, the uniform roughness of the crude stones. As he walks along looking around, still at the foot of the town, he runs into the lively crowd at the market. A peasant atmosphere: sellers' intermittent clamor, the awnings gleaming under the full sun.
After a while, he goes on up through the shadowy streets, gazing idly at the iron trimming at the entrances of both the elegant stone-hewn houses and the less dignified ones. The shine of black iron against the gray matte of stone.
Ornaments, tools, arms... Steel has always been worked in Gubbio. The citizens' hands and faces are gray with iron dust, their eyes saddened from contemplating molten iron.
Our visitor doesn't know the news – he doesn't read the local newspapers – of the discovery that honors the region these days. Yet it seems the local people have long ago lost the capacity to be surprised by anything. Ever since the terrifying wolf was tamed by the Poverello and went from house to house meek as a puppy until it died of old age, it seems they have mined the last of their wonder. Or perhaps they simply haven't heard the news.
The whole thing started when they began renovations on the chaplain's house. The building is beautiful in fact, but old, and the long abandonment and poor location, unprotected from wind and rain, have left it completely destroyed. They want to turn it into a cultural center. It was when they were carrying out these renovations that the old manuscript which is now causing such a hubbub first came to light. The pages were concealed in a hiding place in the very stones, and that explains to some extent not only why they were still there, but also why the parchment has held up so well.
There's little doubt about the author except for his name: the manuscript was written by a priest, a chaplain of the Order of Saint Clare, the main text in the Umbrian dialect with some passages in Latin. The date is estimated to be the middle of the thirteenth century. There are thirty-three pages and, though one might cast doubt on the more unbelievable aspects of the story they tell, or on the chaplain's intentions for these pages, there is fundamentally nothing to disbelieve in the basic information they give us. Whether they were for the Inquisition or were kept under the secrecy of the confessional, whether the confused fantasies are the reporter's own or the priest's pen augmented them, these are trivial matters; in our opinion, the tribulations of the protagonist are the candid mirror of a true event. If this is so, the documents found now by chance tell us of another unfortunately unrecoverable work, as well as of an unknown poet's name and movements.
So as not to break the thread of our story's dramatic course, I will stick to the chaplain's version, leaving to the perception of the reader the task of separating the wheat from the chaff to determine the truth of the matter, though I will try to keep my version as short and free of digressions as possible since our goal is not to produce a literary recreation of the chaplain's text, but to present the news of this lost literary trail to the readers of this newspaper; that is, to make the inevitably circuitous introduction of Bettina Mariani, forgotten poet nun.
Before we start, let us state that the chaplain received all these details from Bettina's friend and confidante. Bettina told her afflictions to only one other person, another nun slightly older than herself with whom she had this special relationship. The confidante was a gawky woman, skilled in the garden and in the kitchen. Her name was Dorotea Viglione, and it is thus to her that we owe this important testimony, though (as we will see later) she was rather simple by nature and – as naiveté is wont to be – with a penchant for embroidering her vision of reality with her own personal ghosts. This simplicity would have made her, perhaps, more beloved in Bettina's eyes. Nevertheless, it is hard to know how much of the story has come down to us from Bettina and how much from Dorotea; and of course we must not forget that the chaplain would also have made his own contribution when completing the story.
Bettina Mariani was a nun in the convent founded in Gubbio by Saint Clare on the orders of Saint Francis. From the time she was very young, she was disposed to poetry. She was consumed by a sentimental passion for God, and He gave her the inspiration to sing His cosmic joy in the humblest things. It is not surprising, therefore, that she soon entered the Second Order of Saint Francis. She was dearly loved by the other nuns, who marveled at her gift for verse, both when it took flight toward the mystical, and when it humbled itself in songs for common celebrations.
God, Poetry... these are big words. Bettina loved nature. She gathered all her feelings in it, it was the basis for all her mysticism, and to it she dedicated all of the time left free to her by her chores and prayers. Roaming alone in the mountains was her most deeply felt devotion, and these walks gave her, apart from the satisfaction of her soul, breathing space for her poetry as well. With time, the rumor of the poet nun Bettina spread to other convents, together with the most serviceable pieces of her work: songs, readings for prayers... Outside the convents as well, it was told that there was a poet nun among the Poor Clares of Gubbio.
Bettina had found her favorite spot on a mountain slope where she went on the most beautiful days to lie down on the grass to imagine the face of God in the greatness of the farthest mountains and in the limitless blue of the heavens.
At times like these, she would take along her writing tools; since she felt such a deep communion in that place, she loved to write down right there the divine poetic sparks that came to her suddenly. She wanted her pen dipped in the experience of nature that entered all her senses.
Thus it was with joy she saw what a gorgeous day it was that late winter day. She had fewer opportunities that late in the season, and she spent the whole day waiting anxiously for the time when her duties would leave her free to go to her favorite place.
She set off then finally, our nun, in the late afternoon, up the craggy path between the hawthorns, longing to taste of her small paradise in the beauty of that beautiful day.
The sunset was as miraculous as only a March afternoon can provide. If she intended to return before darkness, it was already time to take the road back, but suddenly she came to her senses as if waking from a dream, speechless, stunned, in a trance: God Himself had been given to her in her contemplation, and she was capable of putting Him into words. But then she realized she had forgotten her writing tools, her need to get out into the mountains had been so compelling that day.
At the same time, she noticed that it was getting late; the darkness was forcing the light to retreat from the mountain peaks, even as the divine glow of those heavenly words was already darkening in her forgetful earthly memory. And she felt fear in her bowels.
If she went along the path repeating the words, maybe she could fix them in her consciousness, but it frightened her that if a single word twisted on her, God's living presence would leave her and there would be no way to get it back, not even if she spent her whole life in that place. Without completely realizing what she was doing, she picked up a stick from the ground, from the side of a holly tree speckled with red and, where there was an empty space on the ground beneath the tree, started to write there with the stick. She scored the words in deeply; the ground was soft and she started to calm down. In this also, she thought she had found a message from God: these words were to be written without elaborate tools; what nature had given was to be returned to nature by nature.
When she had finished the poem, night was upon her and she got back on the road to the convent; not, however, without looking back often along the path. She was already longing for the approaching night to give way to the light of the new day. She sped back to the convent.
Š An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies