Excerpt of Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
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Youre thinking paternosterquisesincoelis, arent you? he said, watching my
face. Youre thinking nenosinducasintentationem.
Then, without a word, he got up and went to the back of the room. I thought
he was going to show me the books that seemed to be hidden under the cheesecloth
wrappings on the shelf. But he ignored them. He pulled at the logs underneath,
and from behind them came different cloth-wrapped packages. He brought one back
to show me, unwrapping it as he went.
The book was octavo format, small enough to fit in a pocket or a bag. A loose
piece of paper was inserted at the front. He pulled it out and put it under my
nose. This is the Paternoster too, he said roughly. I dont speak Latin. I
dont know many people who do. This is the word of God for anyone who doesnt.
This is the word of God, given to everyone whos been shut out of heaven by the
priests. Do you recognise it?
It was printed in neat Gothic type. Just a page. I looked at the first simple
English words, Oure father which arte in heuene halowed be thy name, and let
it flutter back into my lap. I had a sinking feeling Id gone too far in search
of my own truth; there was a sickness in my stomach at the danger I was
courting. But I could feel the exhilaration inside too the thud of my heart,
the lightness in my limbs. If Id never understood the words of the Church until
now, Id have been transfigured by that sentence on the page.
Show me more, I said.
He gave me that bright sparrow look again, then opened the book for me: I am
the floure of the felde, and lyles of the valeyes. As the aple-tre amonge the
tres of the wood so is my beloved amonge the sons: in his shadow was my desire
to sitt ... Beholde my beloved sayde to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my
bewtifull and come, for now is wynter gone and rayne departed and past ... Up
haste my love, my dove, in the holes of the rocke and secret places of the
Up and haste my love, my dove, my beautiful
I echoed, aloud, surprised
again to be moved by this unexpected loveliness of humdrum English words.
He nodded. Satisfied.
You like it, he said. I thought you would. Ive been watching you for a
long time. I know what you are, however much Latin and Greek you speak, however
much you seem like one of them: youre an innocent at heart.
Stay here for a bit, though, and youll see the real innocents arrive:
people who have never understood the Bible, because its in Latin. Simple people
who have gone to church all their lives, but not understood a word of what the
priests are saying, just stood there muttering Amen and God save me and
thinking the Host is a magic token. People whove been told they face hellfire
unless they do whatever the priests want. People whove had to pay, and pay, and
pay again to save themselves from what the priests tell them will be eternal
hellfire. An angel for a Mass here. A mark for a wedding there. People who have
always lived in mortal fear of the priests, because only the priests understand
the word of God, and the priests always want more money than they have. People
who come to me now for the books that show them they can know the truth for
themselves, and are transformed by it.
Im not one of them the innocents. My old dad was a Lollard. He believed
in an English Bible for everyone who speaks English. So I never knew him. He
died before I was born at the stake. They did burnings, every now and then,
even before your dad. But at least because of my dad I grew up knowing the Word
of God. Some of it, at least. St James. Hed written it out, and they never
managed to find the manuscript. My mum hid it. We learned it by heart.
Excerpted from Portrait of an Unknown Woman
by Vanora Bennett, Copyright © 2007 by Vanora Bennett. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the author.