Dirse

[A short story by Christian García Bello for the exhibition project Pongo mi pie desnudo en el umbral]

 

—Look, see if you remember this.

He took me down the corridor to the living room, that space in the house meant for contemplation, not enjoyment. The room was dominated by a full three-piece suite, a window that looked out on to the road and a large chestnut sideboard which hid the wall completely. She opened one of its little glass doors and carefully took out a primitive iron knife that must have lain there neglected for decades.

—You always asked for it. With all the things in the glass cabinet and you only had eyes for this knife.

—Well, I don’t remember it, actually.

—You were very young then, that’s why we wouldn’t let you hold it. Look how heavy it is. I don’t know how old you were, but your father still had that red Ford Orion.

—No, it was a Ford Escort.

She must have been talking about 1990 or ‘91. We often went to Camposancos then, but I hadn’t been back there for a long time. The knife intrigued me. From the patina and its elemental shape, it could have been from any era, but there was no doubt that it had been made by a blacksmith. The weight was balanced and it was comfortable to hold. A circular curl on the end finished the handle and allowed it to be hung on the wall. I wondered if it belonged to my great-grandfather, though I couldn’t imagine why a tailor would want a knife like that.

—No, it wasn’t his. They found it on the hill before the hill fort was restored and they gave it to me. I don’t remember the story well because it’s been in the house for many years now.

—They found it in Santa Trega?

—Of course, up there. It’s Tinito who can tell you the story, he knows it well.

—Uncle Tino?

—No, Tinito. The man who was at the bar yesterday while we were having coffee. Ask him tomorrow.

As I walked along the verge, circling the bottom of Santa Trega hill, I imagined myself thirty years before, slipping into the living room, barely a metre tall, looking through the glass doors of the sideboard at that knife I had forgotten, and which now fascinated me. It felt good to be back. The sun stings differently on that border marked by the Miño. Gradually, I left A Pasaxe behind and the port where the schooner departed from aboard which Antonio Manuel wrote De catro a catro. There was nothing left of that now except a few disused wharfs. I got to the village at midday and in the square, there was the bustle of people going about their errands. Tinito was a stocky man who split his retirement days between walks, casual conversations and three or four bars in the centre of A Guarda. We had never spoken without my uncle being present, so I ordered a beer, said hello and with that, asked him directly about the knife. He smiled while still looking at the bottle rack in the Café Oasis, and turned to me with his eyes full of nostalgia.

—Of course, Dirse’s knife.

Tinito was second cousin to Constantino Candeira, founder of sawmills, cereal storehouses, shipyards and coastal fishing companies in Vigo, Camposancos, Ponteareas and Salvaterra de Miño. Candeira had been a Republican Deputy, and mayor of A Guarda for a few weeks, a post he renounced due to disagreements with the Civil Government. What I didn’t know was that Constantino Candeira had also played a fundamental part in the Sociedad Pro-Monte, driving the first archaeological excavations of the hill fort of Santa Trega.

—Look, the first excavations on the hill were carried out between 1913 and 1926. My uncle proposed those excavations because he sensed there was something of value there. What he didn’t say at the time was that he had already made some of his own discoveries.

He paused to take a sip of his wine. He did so without any dramatic effect. Tinito talked naturally, he wasn’t trying to captivate me, rather he was sizing me up, gauging whether my curiosity was genuine or simply a way to accompany the summer aperitif.

—My uncle would go up the hill occasionally, to the hermitage. He and a friend had already found some petroglyphs, and so they were making pathways and small excavations in the areas that could have been suitable for a settlement. They also used those excursions to design and plan what is now the road that goes up to the top. What happened is that one day, digging with a small spade they used to take with them, they found several ancient objects next to the rampart of the hill fort which didn’t belong to the hill fort culture.”

The beer was heating up in my hand and Tinito lowered his voice. As he told it, the first thing that Mr Candeira took out of the earth that morning in Santa Trega was the knife that held my fascination. And next to the knife they found a box containing a bundle of annotations, drawings and brief notes written in Flemish and Latin that constituted a sort of logbook of a journey. It was all signed by a name without second name: Dirse. Tinito pronounced the name with fascination and love. After organising and translating the diary, they discovered that Dirse was a woman from Antwerp, probably a béguine who had been condemned in Liège to walk the Camino de Santiago.

—In those days, that was the kind of sentence they gave you, a pilgrimage in solitude as punishment. She was so lucky.

With the help of a Dutch seaman who spent time at the same bars in the port as Tinito, and a student from the University of Santiago who his niece knew, they managed to translate most of Dirse’s manuscripts. Together they made up a disordered diary combining personal anecdotes, descriptions of architectural elements, poems, verses from the Bible and studies of wild plants. There were also a large number of drawings interspersed and sometimes superimposed on the texts.

—We confirmed that she was from Antwerp and that she had lived for a time at the Small Béguinage at Ghent, until she was invited to leave.

—I know it. The béguinage of Our Lady of ter Hoyen, to the south east of the Saint Bavo Cathedral. When I was there I managed to get two beautiful publications from the 1930s that were on a shelf in the church. There were a few other copies, but as I didn’t know whether I could take them or not, I remember leaving two ten euro notes in their place.

—You don’t say! Getting yourself into problems with the béguinage inhabitants as well, eh?

—Why did they send her away?

—I’ve no idea. Truth is, Dirse must have been quite a character. In the texts, you can find criticisms of the Pope in Rome worthy of Luther, accompanied by sarcastic comments against the gregarious sanctimony of the protestants. She was a committed individualist and had very personal ideas about God and Christianity, but she didn’t try to impose them on anyone. That’s how she ended up in Liège, tried and condemned.

—But if she did the Camino de Santiago as penance, why did she end up in Santa Trega?

—We managed to order the last papers, the ones from her pilgrimage, because the sheets had a different quality and size. That made it easier. Besides, that part is much more personal and intimate. Darker and more bitter too. She slowly abandoned Latin and only wrote in Flemish at the end. What we think, and it’s just a theory, is that when she entered Galicia she realised that no one was supervising whether she fulfilled her sentence and that she was free to walk wherever she wanted, given that she didn’t have any reason to go back to Flanders. We do know that she came through Santiago because she made drawings of some architectural details of the city, but she also went to Pontevedra, because she took notes from the facade of the Basílica de Santa María la Mayor, designed with the help of Cornelius de Holanda, from Flanders. What she longed for was to come to the end of the earth and find the sea, but she walked south until the River Miño cut off her path. I suppose that is when she decided to go up to Santa Trega and settle there.

—And who has those documents now?

—They’re still in the cultural centre. We don’t know what they’ll do with them yet, but we can go there, if you want to see them. I’ll get this.

On the way, making use of the stops Tinito made to say hello to everyone, I tried to get my head around all the information he had given me, and fantasised about what I could do with those documents. My serious countenance hid an acid sensation that ran through my arms up to my neck. I took out my mobile and sent a hurried message: “I won’t be home for lunch. I’m with Tinito. Talk later”. Tinito opened a back door and we went in.

—I never ended up returning the key. No one asked for it back either.

We accessed a small room, with a desk and a blind that filtered the light from the window. The place didn’t seem to be open to the public, as there was only a coffee cup, some sports trophies and a lot of unlabelled boxes. Tinito asked me to pick up a maroon box while he made space on the table. I handed it to him and he took out two carved wooden cups and a large sheaf of papers.

—The ones in the worse state are the oldest. I think those ones are from the béguinage period. And these ones are from her journey. Take care when you’re looking at them, they’re delicate. I’ll go and see if I can turn the lights on.

Each piece of paper was paired with a typed-out sheet which contained the translations of the texts. In effect, there was no order or clear hierarchy, which bathed it all in a halo of mystery. Broken off paragraphs were mixed up with drawings of a different nature. I could make out several landscapes, described with broken lines and soft hills, architectural details like windows, imposts, chimneys, niches and church doors from the Camino de Santiago, drawings of her instruments from the journey, like a bowl, a compass, a surveyor’s chain, a kneading trough or a knife, and in the last stage, a series of diagrams, maps, religious scenes and plans for a refuge with an ascetic, geometric style, and an air of metaphysical painting that captivated my attention. Alongside these last drawings were the most poetic texts. Brief verses, words and stanzas moving between the tactility of the mystical and the purely Cartesian and descriptive. On the last page of the manuscript, a horizontal line crossed the page firmly from one side to the other, and in the upper half were written the following words in Flemish: “Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem”. I recognised the quote instantly. It was a verse from Psalm 122, the only text that didn’t seem to be written by Dirse.

—Can I take this with me to study it tonight?

—No, it can’t leave this room. Take photos of whatever you like, but you can’t take it with you, I’m sorry.

I took photos of everything with shaking hands. I did what I could with the little light there was and I also noticed that Tinito needed to leave. We collected everything up in the correct order, closed the box and I put it back on the shelf. We went out through the back door and I said that something had to be done with all of that, that it was too interesting a story to be in a box, waiting to be devoured by the silverfish.

—Well, we’ll see. It’s not only up to me.

I said goodbye to Tinito and took the road back to Camposancos. The afternoon was getting on but I was no longer hungry. The heat had traced the shape of my rucksack on my back in sweat by the time I walked through the door of the house.

—Have you eaten? Shall I make something for you?

—Yes, yes, I’ve already eaten, don’t worry.

—Are you sure? There are still some hot fritters left.

—Yes, don’t worry. I’ve come to pick some things up to go and have a swim in the river.

—That’s a good idea, one must always bathe. What did Tinito tell you?

—The story of Dirse. He took me to see some of her notes that they found with the knife in the living room. Did you ever see them?

—No, I didn’t. I told you he knew the story well. I always had the impression that they seemed to have found something important, but I’m not interested in those stories.

—Right. I’ll be back in the evening, ok?

I left the house and headed for O Muiño beach. At that time of day, there still weren’t many people. Some were finishing their dessert at the hotel and others were taking refuge in the shade. The heat was like a slap in the face. I left my rucksack on the incandescent sand, covered it with my shirt, put my phone in my right trainer and went down to the water. Whatever time of year, the mouth of the Miño is always freezing. That low temperature immediately produced a sensation of sweet tiredness in me. In that state, I imagined that Dirse had also bathed in these waters when she was living in her refuge in Santa Trega, by the hill fort. And for certain, she had also turned the swim into a ritual, as if it were a daily baptism or a communion between her body and the current, pushing her west, to the end of the earth.