Excerpt from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 432 pages
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

It was just a room. A mean little room at the back of a mean little house, under All Hallows. But it was a room full of God.

‘Bet you’d like to see how I make my remedies,’ Davy had said – almost a taunt – when I took myself with cloak and basket round the apothecaries and stopped at his tatty display. He grinned for the passers-by. ‘Bet you’ve never seen real unicorn’s horn, eh, missis?’

The street boys cackled and poked each other with their elbows. I swallowed, ignored them, and nodded, wondering whether he was really just a lunatic after all, and he loped off eastwards, looking behind to make sure I was following.

He went on muttering. I caught some words on the wind as I hurried along behind, but nothing that made any sense. Once he turned round with a mad laugh and waved a dirty bottle taken from his pocket at me. ‘Elixir of truth!’ he shrieked cheerfully. ‘Let’s drink it!’ Then he ducked into an alleyway, beckoning me forward with a bony finger, and pushed into his home.

It stank. There was bedding at the back, rolled up; and at the front of the room a frowsty old woman in a chair picked half-heartedly at some needlework. There was a table in the window with a dozen or so sloppy bottles, half-full of greyish, yellowish stuff, and basins with more of the same indeterminate liquids half-covered with cloths like children’s games. Davy’s games, I presumed. The old woman looked up and her eyes widened at the sight of me. But she hid her surprise reasonably well. She didn’t put down her mending. ‘Good morning, mistress,’ she said with composure.

Davy took his craziness off like a cloak when he came indoors. ‘We’ll go to the room, Mum,’ he said calmly. ‘Will you let the others in later?’

We walked through the courtyard where two cats were hissing at each other and into the half-submerged cellar room at the back, whose walls were loaded with firewood, tools, bottles, a couple of shelves of foodstuffs and a couple of shelves, right at the back, of square shapes covered in cloth. There were three long trestle benches in the middle of the room.

‘Sit down,’ Davy said. ‘Please. Can I get you something? Wine?’ and he laughed, but a sane laugh now, perhaps even a little wry. ‘Elixir of truth?’

‘I’ve come to ask for the truth,’ I said seriously, and was encouraged to see him sit down on another bench and nod back with equally serious simplicity. ‘I think you know why. I want to know about the women you sent to me. The man who died. The Bible men and why my father hates them. I’m guessing you can tell me.’

He nodded. Considering. There was a gleam in those strange old eyes that I didn’t remember seeing before.

‘I’ve got a question for you first,’ he said. ‘What do you say when you pray?’
I paused. Watching his lips but not understanding the sounds they made. What kind of question was that?

‘I mean it. Think,’ he said. ‘What words do you pray with?’

And the candle gloom of the church swept through me; the mighty, measured words of God. Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de luminae, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt ... Pater noster, quis es in coelis; sanctificetur nomen tuum: ad veniat regnum tuum: fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.

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.

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