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Authors: Katie Ward

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Girl Reading (2 page)

BOOK: Girl Reading
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SCRIBNER

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2011 by Katie Ward

Originally published in Great Britain in 2011 by Virago Press

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First Scribner hardcover edition February 2012

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Library of Congress Control Number: 2011431843

ISBN 978-1-4516-5590-2

ISBN 978-1-4516-5733-3 (ebook)

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Contents

Simone Martini

Annunciation, 1333

Pieter Janssens Elinga

Woman Reading, 1668

Angelica Kauffman

Portrait of a Lady, 1775

Featherstone of Piccadilly

Carte de Visite,
1864

Unknown

For Pleasure, 1916

Immaterialism

Reader in a Shoreditch Bar, 2008

Sincerity Yabuki

Sibil, 2060

A Note

Acknowledgments

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Topics & Questions for Discussion

Enhance Your Book Club

A Conversation with Katie Ward

You can never say with certainty whether what appears to be going on in the collective unconscious of a single individual is not also happening in other individuals or organisms or things or situations.

—C. G. Jung “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle” (Collected Works, volume 8)

Simone Martini

Annunciation, 1333

S
he arrives glowing from the effort of running, strands of red hair coming loose from her kerchief (she tucks them in), marks on her neck like bruises on fruit. A few minutes late but not enough for anyone to mention it. Is almost surprised to find herself in the wards once more amid illness and suffering (on an evening such as this). Her mind is elsewhere. She accepts a dish, a spoon, instructions to feed a patient who rasps with each breath, whose sores stink, who has for eyes one piercing brown bead and one sagging black hole. Familiar and strange, ordinary and violent.

She does not smile encouragingly at the invalid to finish her meal, does not add to the whispered hubbub of the stone halls. They labor together in silence. The crone chews and swallows slowly despite the impulse of her body to reject what it consumes; the girl holds the spoon out, withdraws it, rests it; the food on the plate scarcely diminishes. Candle flames are skittish in the draft, creating the impression of hasty movement.

The old woman speaks; the girl is roused from her private thoughts. Who are you?

My name is Laura Agnelli.

That is not what I asked.

A patient in a bed farther along screams with pain. There is a disturbance. Some run to her aid, some are disgusted and afraid to be close by.

Laura offers one last mouthful to her charge, wipes the remnants from her bluish lips. I am a daughter of Santa Maria della Scala hospital.

You are a foundling? What is your history?

I have none.

You have a name, though.

The rector himself named me Agnelli. It means “lamb.” He is over there. Laura indicates, without pointing, Rettore Giovanni di Tese Tolomei, a man as wide as he is tall, his thumb tucked into his finery as he makes his inspection of the wards.

The woman swivels her eye toward him, then back to the girl. You were plucked from a crop of innocents by that man?

He showed me compassion because I was weak. He held me in his own arms and gave me his blessing, so I am told.

I am surprised he did not mistake you for a ham.

Laura frowns at the crone. He saved my life.

Did he?

And the lives of many foundlings, before and since.

But he bestowed his favor on
you.
It is not an honor I would wish for a daughter of mine.

The patient’s pillow needs rearranging, the bedclothes have slipped down; Laura sets them right, noticing as she does so how cold are the limbs beneath.

The old woman winks her eye. What else do they tell you?

That it was Our Lady who inspired him. The rector heard me
crying, held me and foretold that I would take religious vows—and that one day, I would bring rewards to Santa Maria della Scala hospital and the whole city of Siena.

The woman raises her good eyebrow, exaggerating the unevenness of her face; Laura covers the marks on her neck, uneasy.

What do the other children make of it?

They never say.

How did you come to be called Laura? Did your mother call you this?

I know not.

Maybe when she could provide nothing else, she gave you this name—Laura—hoping you would like it?

Yes, you might be right.

She did what she thought was for the best, like all mothers who bring their babes here and turn them over to Signor Rettore.
Suffer little children to come unto me.
(The woman shuts her eye, while the other socket hangs open still.) Yes, I can see her perfectly, even though she is doing her best to hide. Her head is uncovered, she lets her hair hang about her shoulders like the fallen woman she is. Pitiful. But we should not be too harsh on her; it is only because she is using every fragment of cloth to keep the infant warm. She is giving it her blessing before she parts with it:
I hope you will be spared the pain I knew.
Is that all? Such a small request, for such a small wriggling bundle! And yet it is worth a dozen of Signor Rettore’s grand pronouncements. She looks tired . . . poor thing has not slept in days. She should sleep now, I think.

Laura counts the lengthening spaces between the woman’s breaths, stays by the bedside for many hours until it is over.

What pretty feet you have. Like two pigeons with their wings folded and their heads tucked in. Do you dance?

Not often. Not well. When there is music, and I am moved to.

I imagine you bouncing and bobbing like a wheat stalk in a breeze, and afterward I imagine you rosy and out of breath. What pretty knees you have too. There is no doubt about it, God intends you to be a bride.
My
bride.

You are making fun of me.

I would swear to it. Pretty legs. Where the heart goes, the body has to follow.

What did you say? What are you doing?

The magnificent cathedral is the envy of every city-state. It matches the ambitions of those who built it, and the saints themselves would nod their appreciation. The Duomo is absolutely Siena’s, and Siena is absolutely the Virgin’s. How they flourish under her protection.

A man stands before the high altar but he is not here for mass, and he has no awe in his heart. He is inspecting something he has seen hundreds of times before, his objectivity strained. Wealth does not impress him, for he is wealthier than most. Lavish decorations hold few surprises these days. His arms are folded across his chest like a farmer’s, his gargoyle features contracted in a scowl; a short lump of a man. Were it not for the fine weave of his tunic, the opulence of its color, the ornate trim, he might be mistaken for a pilgrim or even a beggar. He senses a presence in this marvelous place (how it glitters, how it is still!) but it is no angel or deity: it is the laughing ghost of a man he knew extremely well in life.

The altarpiece is the
Maestà,
the enormous panel showing the Madonna and Child upon a throne, adored by a host of angels and saints. It is surrounded by smaller storytelling panels and drenched in gold. For the faithful, the
Maestà
is a channel to the Virgin: she sees out of those very eyes, hears their pleas through it. On the day it was installed in the Duomo, there was a procession led by the
bishop, the priests and friars around the Campo, attended by the Nine, the entire Commune, the citizens of Siena. Resplendent, it passed through the crowds. Bells rang, alms were given to the poor, prayers were made to Our Lady, our advocate. It is Duccio’s (old master, old rogue). Simone Martini snorts.

BOOK: Girl Reading
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