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Authors: Katie Ward

Tags: #General Fiction

Girl Reading (8 page)

BOOK: Girl Reading
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We had a special place only we two knew about—

No, not that. I wish to be clear about whether or not this person physically harmed you. Did he force you?

Once again, Laura looks ill and for a minute is tongue-tied. He said he loved me. He made promises. He said I was too good for a convent, and he wanted me for his wife. I tried to reason with him, to put him off, but he was eager and impatient with me.

Was he cruel to you . . . ?

Laura covers her mouth, then composes herself. He was persistent, and I was deceived. He was kinder afterward and assured me no one would find out.

And no doubt he seemed mature to you. Did you see him again? Does he know about the pregnancy?

I did not wish to see him. I wished to break it off. I intended to do my penance and, God willing, to go to Santa Marta as I originally hoped. When I realized, I sought him out and told him. I said I accepted, I said I wanted to get married and to raise our child together. I thought he would be pleased because he had asked me often enough, but he just stopped coming. At first I thought he needed to get used to the idea, but I have since heard he has gone to Ravenna and I think it might be true because it is a city he talked about, and I have searched everywhere else I can think of. In my heart I acknowledge he does not want to be found, but I do not know what to do without him.

Do you love this fellow?

You will think badly of me if I say it was his honeyed words that affected me most, the thought that someone cared for me and found me desirable. I have lost the life I might have had for
that.
(Laura’s voice cracks.) I have been trying to think precisely which
of my sins has merited this treatment. I have been trying to understand why God is allowing this to happen to me, and yet denies you and Giovanna the child you both yearn for.

Because God is either not as benevolent as we would like to believe, or not as powerful. Or maybe he has his own reasons.

I would have married Bartolomeo even though I do not love him, even though he would have made me miserable. I would have tolerated him and made do. (Laura covers her face.) I am on my own now.

Despair is also a sin.

If I bear this child and raise it as a bastard, we will be destitute. I have no income, nor the means to make one. We will be ostracized. I will never find a man who is prepared to marry me and take care of someone else’s child. Shall we live on alms from Santa Maria della Scala until we are found dead in the street? Shall I become a prostitute like my mother probably was? I know I am complicit and I could have avoided this if I had behaved better, but why must I alone be punished when two people have sinned? Is it because I am the vessel? I am remorseful, Signore, but I am also angry. You will not tell anyone . . . ?

No. But nature is going to give your secret away unless you take your destiny in your own hands, young Laura. Clearheadedness must prevail over desperation.

Laura rises to pace to and fro.

Simone Martini sits with his fingers linked across his belly. Would it be so terrible to entrust one more foundling to the care of the hospital that raised you? It would give both of you a chance.

A chance . . . it has not occurred to me before that my own mother might have been a daughter of Santa Maria della Scala, that I might be but a link in a chain. I always imagined I came from outside the walls, from somewhere else, was taken there out of misfortune. A chance? I might still go to a convent, then, perhaps not
Santa Marta, but another may still take me. If not, I suppose I could marry, although it has never held much appeal. Eventually I may even be able to have the child back. (To Simone’s surprise there is amusement in Laura’s face.) We call that “the lie.”

What do you mean?

It is the sentimental promise made by women when they bring their babies to the hospital. They give the infants tokens and trinkets to identify them by later on: engraved coins, rings, pins, buttons, embroidery—you would be amazed at the variety. But it has never happened, not once. The objects are disposed of and the women never come back.

You could stay on at the hospital and watch your child grow.

They would not allow it. Only one of us would be permitted to stay. But then, in all likelihood, only one of us would survive.

My child, do not think such morbid thoughts.

You have not seen it, Signore. You have not seen how many women and babies are killed by childbirth. By sickness. So many horrible ways to die. When disease ravages the wards, the smallest and weakest are the first to succumb. It is accepted, which is the same as saying it is acceptable.

You have lived to adulthood. Why do you doubt your offspring would?

Maybe it will. Maybe it will be a beautiful youth. Maybe one of the hospital’s benefactors will take a fancy to it. You must have heard the rumors, Signore? I expect that you would recognize one or two men from your social circle who are regular donors. Quid pro quo—

A hooked hand springs to Simone’s mind; it repulses him momentarily, he forces it away.

I have been spared. If anyone’s eye fell upon me, the rector steered him away because it was assumed I would be a nun and should be kept chaste. But some are too pretty for their own good.
And stubborn. They draw attention to themselves. But I can see perfectly well why women who bring the children they cannot keep to the hospital believe it is for the best, for the slim chance you speak of.

What is in your prayers, young Laura?

That God will take this thing away. I know it is awful, but I would count it a blessing.

It is a risky strategy, simply to hope. Have you considered fully all your choices, or are you going to be a victim of fate?

She darkens, catching his meaning. I cannot undo one sin with another.

Not “undo,” but potentially limit the damage. It sounds to me that you are in a position where you must pick the lesser evil.

It would be wicked. I would be excommunicated if I were found out.

I am old now, but I was young once. Ought I to believe the thought has not occurred to you? Are these accidents new or unusual? There is nothing new under the sun. You are not the first young woman to be in this predicament, and you shall not be the last.

But to harm an unborn—

Tell me where in the Bible it says that a woman shall not end a pregnancy if it appears the least harmful course of action?

Thou shalt not kill.

Simone Martini nods. Yes, it does say that. I cannot deny it.

The artist gets to his feet and turns his attention back to the plate of olives. He takes one and offers them to her, which she refuses once more. He eats the olive and spits the stone back into the palm of his hand and holds it there.

Whenever I eat an olive I discard the stone. When you eat an olive, what do you do with the stone?

I discard it too.

Yes. It would be strange indeed if everybody attempted to plant the seed from every single olive fruit and grow a tree from it. The olive tree is sacred, you know. Myth has it that a goddess called Athena quarreled with the god Poseidon and won a competition against him to be the patron of a Greek city by giving its people the first olive tree. I like the idea of another great city with a powerful protectress like ours. Even if it is not true, it is a good story. It would be extremely destructive to cut down a fully grown olive tree without good reason.

It would be wrong . . .

Quite wrong.

But Signore, we are not talking about seeds and trees. We are talking about immortal souls. Your analogy does not hold.

I admit I do not have the flair of a bard, but I want to know whether you genuinely believe the cutting down of a tree and the discarding of a stone are of
equal
severity. Are they?

A simile is not reality.

But you agree that a grown tree and a dormant seed are not the same as each other? If you believe they are the same, have the courage to say so.
I
do not think they are. I think that one is life fulfilled, and one has the potential for life requiring soil, water, sunlight, time to grow and be actualized. That is my opinion. And I say these things to you because you have suffered much in isolation, because you have already been misled, because you have no parents to guide you. And a student of scripture really ought to know that on this specific matter, the Bible is silent. Why? Well, that is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the authors do not pronounce judgment because they believe it to be a private matter, or a matter for society to decide. The Bible tells us
thou shalt not kill,
and yet we do, when there are sufficient reasons. Rather often, as it happens. What about defending one’s city in war? What about the execution of a guilty man? Our
church,
on the other hand—the one that you and I are
members of—is indeed vocal and would call it a crime. But that is not the same.

Your words are hurtful.

I am sorry for that, Laura Agnelli. You ask God, why has this happened to you? I ask myself, why did God ensure you and I met? I believed at first it was for the painting, but now I am not sure. Be wary, Laura Agnelli, of anyone who claims to know what is in God’s mind and what God wants us to do.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Whatever you decide, young Laura, is up to you, because it is you who will have to reconcile your conscience and live with the consequences of your actions.

Laura murmurs, Graves are filled with after-the-fact wisdom.

Simone throws up his hands. Giovanna says that all the time; it is her favorite expression. My wife is a know-it-all.

Poor lamb. What shall we do with you?

Laura lays her head on Giovanna’s lap. Giovanna rubs Laura’s shoulder, pulls back the strands of Laura’s hair so they do not fall into her face, tucks them behind her ear.

You know what I want most is a baby son or daughter, given to me by Simone. I still have hope that God will provide us with one.

Laura closes her eyes.

But I believe we can help you. We have connections.

If the Blessed Virgin gave but a moment of her attention to the prayers of the citizens of Siena, what might she hear?

A voice as thin and as sharp as a needle: Thank you for the new altarpiece. Let it bring to the Duomo many worshippers, regardless
of its controversial design. Please do not be too displeased with it. Artists are wayward and unpredictable, and need your leniency . . .

A voice guttural and well fed: Ensure successful representations in Avignon on behalf of your beauteous hospital, and the privileges to guarantee its continuance and prosperity . . .

(These entreaties, and thousands more besides.)

A lady who renews her request every month: I know my life is rich, but give me this one blessing more and I shall never ask for anything else . . .

A girl whose pretty face is wrinkled with effort: Please bring me a husband who will take me away from here! Let him be talented in music so he can write me songs, and wealthy so he can buy me presents. Most of all, let him come quickly! I do not even mind if his breath smells . . .

(Not all requests shall be granted.)

Bless the new novice who has come to us, who seems troubled, who reminds me of myself . . .

Help me to be worthy to live here for the rest of my life . . .

What of the numerous pleas that are made without words, and to no one in particular? Does the Blessed Virgin distinguish between eloquent prayer and an infant’s caterwauling? Would her eye fall, fleetingly, on a humble cot? Does she know one undersized baby from another? Recalling its history, is she moved to extend her protection to this one? Would a whisper from her to a flawed human heart be enough to save its life?

Many details go unrecorded.

Pieter Janssens Elinga

Woman Reading, 1668

T
hey are friends, the two children. Children have a talent for making friends. They have not yet learned the inhibitions of grown-ups. The friendship between a woman and a man can be fraught with complexities, expectancy; but a girl and a boy may be friends and play together. Yes, let’s play. What shall we play?

The girl is bossy. Girls are. They can be precocious and have fixed ideas. Girls like to think and feel, boys like to do. This girl is no exception: it shall be a game of dragons and swords—it is decided, she has decided it. Green dragons (the very worst dragons are always green) and golden swords with jewels in the hilt. We will use stinging nettles for dragons and sticks for swords. I shall be a knight and you can be my page. Or horse: you choose.

Boys can be ignorant, and here is a potential barrier to their friendship . . . he does not understand.

Patiently, Esther explains again. She is the knight, he is the
page—or the horse—those nettles covering that bank are the dragons. And we are going to slay them.

Hugo responds to her instructions with bewilderment. She repeats herself once more, but his attention wanders. Rules and crafted stories are wasted on him. She resorts to pantomime, to dragging him by the arm to her chosen place, to exaggerated pointing.

BOOK: Girl Reading
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