Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23e - Inscribed by V. M. Agab - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/06/30 - listen here)
Welcome to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s second original fiction offering! This story comes to you from the Italian Renaissance, set in Venice. The gender politics of 15th century Italy were, in some ways, very rigid and circumscribed, but in the places where those structures fractured, there was space for people to claim a space of their own. Inscribed is a story of just such a space, when two women find that the world doesn’t have a place for the directions their lives have turned, but perhaps--just perhaps--they can create one together.
We are immensely proud that our author, V. M. Agab, is making her professional fiction debut on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. She lives in Brooklyn, with her parents and three wonderfully annoying siblings. When she isn’t babysitting, she writes fanfiction to soothe the soul, and occasionally blogs for Women and Words. She is currently working on a novel of the queer persuasion and is getting ready to start graduate school this fall to pursue writing as a career.
Our narrator for this story is Ann Etter. She is an avid reader who finds that narration is the perfect blend of her love of acting with her love for the printed page and she, too, blogs occasionally for Women and Words. Her day job involves numbers and tax forms. She says, she especially enjoyed this story as it hearkened back to her college days studying medieval history. Ann has three children and two grandchildren and loves home improvement projects. She is a native of New Hampshire and has lived in Minnesota for over 25 years.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
By V.M. Agab
The small room smelled of paper and ink, and salt from the canals and waterways. Every surface sat covered in stacks of documents, precariously leaning against each other and the walls. The early morning sunlight fought a losing battle to get through a particularly large stack resting before the window, only slivers managing to get through, making the papers look orange and glowing where the light touched them.
Luca sat at the table, the only cleared surface in the room, a feather in her grip, the bristles reflecting the light of the small candle that illuminated her work. The knife slid through the tip with a skillful flick of the wrist, and the translucent shavings fell to the floor as she shaped the pen’s nib. She could hear the thick crowds of Venice outside her study, and the creaking of her father’s footsteps echoed from the front of the shop. He was probably sweeping the entrance as he usually did around breakfast time every day, his swollen joints making it painful to hold even the broom. She pictured her father at this very table only a couple years ago, hands already worsening by the time she was old enough to retain memories. She wondered if her own fingers would grow crippled with age, bent and mangled.
She sat back when the feather tip was to her liking and stretched her arms over her head, intertwining her black, ink-stained fingers as she groaned in relief, before leaning in and taking a blank sheet of paper. She took out a near empty jar of powdered lampblack and the mortar, the smooth rock familiar in her palm, and mixed the ink, diluting the black dust and stirring it as skillfully as she wielded her knife and pen. She took comfort in the familiar movements, her eyes scanning the document she was about to copy. The lettering on the paper in front of her was faded and the parchment had seen better days. Wherever the owner of the documents stored them made a mess of them, and Luca had spent the past week working for hours to rewrite the stack of records. She put the mortar on the table and started scribing, mentally noting to stop by the cartolaio and purchase more paper from the merchant.
She wrote until the mixed ink ran out and wiped the tip of the feather on a rag. The carefully laid out sheets dried on the side as she tidied her workstation, rinsing out the mortar and pestle in the small bowl she kept on the floor by one of the table legs. The water swirled with the dredges of dried ink and darkened as it diluted. She looked outside and noticed the sun. Her stomach growled as the aroma of yesterday’s stew drifted through the door. She carefully placed the mortar and the jar of lampblack back in their places, stretched again, and went to join her father for the meal.
He sat in the same chair he had sat in for nearly twenty years, and Luca took her own seat, the two of them glancing at the only other chair in the room, empty for nearly three months now. Luca ignored the grief for her dead mother and set about pouring her father the wine she picked up last week. They ate in silence until her father finished his cup and reached for the wine pitcher, nearly dropping it as his weak grip carried it to him.
“We need help, Luca,” her father said, watching the red liquid swirl in his refilled cup. Luca watched a few bubbles pop and then glanced back at her father.
“You know why we can’t. If anyone finds out I’m not a man, who will the business go to?”
“You can run it as a woman. You can get married. Have children. You can live happily,” he said, his rough voice getting rougher by the moment. “I regret ever making this ridiculous plan. We would have been okay with you as yourself, not as this…this boy.”
“No, we would have been poor and starving, and I would never be as happy as I am now. I don’t want a husband anyway.”
“Then what will we do? You can’t work alone forever. We’re scribes, we will always be busy.”
“Don’t worry about it, papa. I’ll figure it out. We’ll be fine.”
The rest of the meal went by in silence. The empty space that Luca’s mother left felt larger than ever, and the pain of watching her father’s regrets made her stomach ache. She stood up and grabbed her doublet. She checked that the rolled-up fabric in the crotch of her hose didn’t shift, rearranging it slightly, and when she looked sufficiently manly she walked out of the room and through the front door of the house.
“I’m going to the paper merchant,” she yelled to her father, who still sat at the table, his food barely touched.
The streets were crowded, and the smell of the water was strong enough to distract her as she walked down the walkways, and over a bridge. The small store sat nestled between two others, the graceful arches of the buildings looking worse for wear. The windows seemed grimy in places and a door hinge was loose enough for the door to get stuck as Luca walked in. The familiar smells of paper and parchment greeted her, and she heard people move around in the back.
“Signore Rosso,” Luca called out.
Boots resounded on the wooden floor and a portly man, a head shorter than Luca, walked in. His colorful hose left very little to the imagination as they strained against his belly and legs, and his linen shirt was soaked through with sweat. Luca felt hot just looking at the man with his red face and somewhat labored breathing.
“Luca!” Francesco Rosso greeted, “what can I do for you?”
“I need some paper, Signore Francesco,” Luca said, grinning.
“You’re a funny boy, Luca, a funny boy.”
Francesco went into the back room again, bringing out a roll of pristine sheet, rolling it out a bit. “This one is good, holds the ink nicely.”
“Do you have any from my last order left? I need a few more pages of that one.”
“I’ll check, but I’m telling you, this one is better. And I got it for cheap, so I’ll sell it to you for twenty-five soldi,” Francesco said, his voice receding as he shuffled around in the back.
“How about twenty,” Luca asked. She was sure she heard the man mumble ‘funny boy’, but before she could argue farther Francesco’s daughter walked in, carrying a plate with her father’s food. Luca watched her pause a moment as Coletta realized that Luca was by the counter. “Hello, Coletta,” Luca said, voice growing softer as the girl’s brown eyes met her own.
“Good day, Signore Zancani.”
“Just Luca is fine.”
The two looked at each other, Coletta holding the plate, and Luca fiddling with hands, unable to keep them still. Francesco walked back in, holding a few cut pages out for Luca to see. Snapping back to attention, Luca took the papers, hoping Signore Rosso didn’t notice her reddening cheeks, and nodded.
“I’ll take both.” Luca watched from the corner of her eye as Coletta put the plate on the table, and after her father kissed her temple affectionately but in dismissal, briskly left without another glance, her head down.
“Twenty-three soldi,” Francesco said.
“You’re a funny man, Signore Rosso,” Luca said and put the coins on the counter, taking the loose pages and the roll of new paper with her as Francesco laughed.
Once she got back home, her father nowhere to be seen, Luca got back to work. She mixed more ink, using the last of the lampblack, and scribed more pages. When her right hand grew tired, she switched to her left. The comfort of using her dominant hand gave her small boost, and the last pages were done before she even realized it. She reached over to put her pen down, praising herself for a job well done, when her palm grazed against the still wet ink, smudging several lines. She jerked her hand away and hit the inkwell, tipping it over. Black stains spread on the drying pages, puddles growing as the ink seeped through the pages.
“Damn, rotten table!” Luca growled as the ink trickled onto her hose, staining the fabric around her thighs. She grabbed the bowl on the floor and swept the ink into it, getting as much of it as possible into the water and away from her work. She patted the ruined pages dry and salvaged what she could.
Hands stained and hose ruined, Luca kicked the chair, its clatter thundering against the floor as it fell. An entire day of work ruined. The sun was nearly set, and Luca was sure that she could get a page or two redone tonight if only she could get some more ink powder. Signore Rosso would be closing soon if he weren’t already. She put the bowl back and hastily rolled down her sleeves before throwing on her doublet on her way out of the house.
The Venetian streets were still crowded, young men coming out in droves to taverns and brothels. Luca walked briskly down the street, steering clear of already inebriated groups littering the walkways, swaying over ledges and under threat to drop into the waterways at any moment. Several gondolas drifted by, and birds flocked over the exposed evening sky visible from between the narrow streets. Luca rushed across a bridge and towards the familiar building, its windows dark and the door closed. She jogged up to it, trying the door, and leaned her forehead against it when it didn’t move, her short hair tickling her jaw and cheeks.
The sounds of distant laughter and faint music in the streets drifted away as the voices from within the house reached her ears. The voice belonged Signore Rosso, she was sure, and he sounded mad. She never heard the portly man raise his tone above the jovial conversational one Luca grew so used to, and it was in her confusion that she didn’t immediately move away and give them the privacy they obviously thought they had.
“What will people say, who will marry you now?” he shouted, “Give me a name, I’ll strangle the bastardo with my own two hands.”
Jealousy punched Luca in the gut, and irrational anger flared. She felt stupid for liking Coletta. She felt stupid for not thinking what liking her meant, and just how broken hearted she would end up. Luca really should have left, she really wanted to.
Francesco kept shouting at his daughter, the sounds of his palm slamming on furniture to punctuate his words interspersed the argument. With each moment his voice got louder and louder.
“You useless, shameful woman. No dowry in the world will fix this. You ruined this family!” The sharp crack of wood replaced his words and then silence. Luca’s heart pounded, and her hand reached for the door knob.
“Go to your room. And I want his name,” he said, voice growing loud again.
Luca heard the fast steps on the stairs, and then the voice of Francesco’s wife.
“Francesco,” Signora Rosso said softly enough that Luca could barely hear it. And then Francesco began to weep.
Luca turned away from the door, the shame of having overheard the private conversation overshadowed by the disgrace of the plan forming in her head. She shook her head, told herself it wasn’t a smart idea, that it would only cause more problems. Then with a deep breath and an exhaled groan she turned back and looked up at the building. The dancing light from a candle illuminated one of the windows and with a glance around the empty street, Luca began to climb, cursing herself with every handhold, and praying that she’d slip and fall, and go home instead.
As her stained hands reached the window, fingers aching and tiny scrapes leaving red and white streaks in the blackened skin of her palm, she pushed on the glass, nearly losing her grip. Her fingers squeaked against the surface and she cursed as she clung on. A face appeared in the window and she nearly screamed, if only she wasn’t breathless and strained. Coletta’s shocked face stayed in place as she opened the window, and Luca pulled herself up, remembering at the last moment to soften her steps.
“Well that was a climb,” she whispered airily, bending over and heaving. She straightened up after a moment and wiped the sweat off her face with her sleeve. The room was miniscule, and there was barely any space for the two of them to stand in a comfortable distance. A bed sat in one corner, and a small stool that doubled as a shelf was next to it. A chest stood at the foot of the bed.
“What are you doing here, Signore Zancani?”
Luca looked up at her, raising a brow.
“Fine, what are you doing here Luca?”
Now that she really was here, and doing this, all sense of panic she’d felt in her climb changed into trepidation. Coletta stood before her, eyes red-rimmed, and cheeks splotchy. She looked smaller than she did this afternoon, scared and helpless. This was a terrible idea. It was beyond terrible, but Luca’s father was tired, Luca was drowning in isolation, and Coletta’s life was about to change no matter what happened.
“I overheard your family,” she said cautiously, “and I want to help you.”
“What?” Coletta’s voice broke, voice growing hoarse with new tears. “Were you eavesdropping? You- you…!” She stared Luca down angrily, an uneasy feat with how much taller Luca was.
“I didn’t mean to, I swear,” Luca said. “But look, I… I think we can try something. Something that might fix all this.”
“What?” Coletta asked, tears rolling down her furious face.
“First, I just want you to know that I am serious about this, and that what I’m about to propose is just as important to me as I feel it will be to you. You might not think so now, but I will have everything riding on this plan if I share it with you, so please, hear me out.”
Coletta turned away and moved to her bed, sitting on its edge. She leaned her head into her arms and rocked once before sitting back up and wiping her tears away. Luca took a moment to herself and leaned against the window frame instead of coming closer to Coletta. She figured Coletta would need as much space as Luca could offer after her plan was revealed.
“My name is Luca, and I am a scribe, but I’m not…a man.”
Luca waited for Coletta’s reaction, watching her closely. The young woman looked back at her, brows furrowed, face confused.
“My father needed an apprentice, and we couldn’t afford one, so he raised me as his son.”
The silence stretched. The shuffling of Coletta’s parents downstairs was muffled by the walls and the gentle sound of rippling water drifted in from the window.
“You see why I can’t get a wife, yes?” Luca asked, palms sweating. Coletta wasn’t saying anything, just boring her gaze into Luca’s. “And now we can, I don’t know, work together maybe?”
Coletta watched Luca, and Luca watched Coletta. Nothing moved. Blood rushed in Luca’s ears as her heart beat fast. She could feel her temples and throat pulse. And then, Coletta looked down to Luca’s hose.
Red seeped into Luca’s cheeks and the tips of her ears were burning. She shifted in her spot, leaning her weight from one foot to another and refrained her hands from covering herself. “It’s, uh, it’s just fabric.”
“What happened to your hose?” Coletta asked, pointing to the dark stains on Luca’s thighs.
“That’s why I came here in the first place, I spilled all my ink.”
Coletta nodded, and then slowly looked down at the floor, thinking.
Luca cleared her throat. “My shop gets good business. The church wants to hire me to scribe an antiphonary, and I have regular contracts with the court and a few important families. I can provide for you, and you can help me keep up appearances. …I can help you raise this child.” Luca realized she said the wrong thing as she was saying it, and the anguish on Coletta’s face as she cradled her waist was enough for Luca to change her mind. She dropped her gaze, unable to look Coletta in the eyes any longer. “Just forget it. I’m sorry for asking, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll leave you alone.” She turned back to the window and just as she was about to climb back over she stopped. “Please,” she whispered into the night, “just keep my secret.”
She swung her leg out, bracing herself for the climb down, when she felt a hand on her arm.
“How will this work?” Coletta asked. It was a plea, and Luca exhaled and got back inside.
“Tell your father it was me.”
“He’ll murder you,” Coletta said urgently.
“Well, how else can we do this?” Luca asked. She felt exasperated and exhausted. She just wanted to buy some ink.
Coletta rubbed her forehead and then her head shot up. “Do you have enough for a dowry?”
“I can scrape together maybe twenty ducats,” Luca said, worry pulling at her. Would it be enough for Signore Rosso?
“Twenty?” Coletta said in a breathy voice.
“I’m sorry, that’s all I have right now.”
“No, that is more than my father ever hoped to get,” she whispered, and Luca shrugged, not knowing what to say. Colette gestured to her stomach, still flat as far as Luca could see. “You have to tell him about this yourself.”
“Me?” she squeaked, “Why me?”
“Because if I tell him, he’ll go to your house with an axe, but if you come here yourself then maybe he’ll be okay with it. You have to pretend that you don’t know he knows, and then ask him for permission to marry me. That way it seems like you’re taking responsibility.”
Luca ran her hand through her hair, the wavy strands falling back around her face. “Okay, tomorrow I’ll come and talk to your father.”
The silence stretched, and with a final nod, Luca climbed out the window, giving Coletta a final smile she didn’t necessarily feel before disappearing into the night.
The next day came too fast despite the lack of sleep, and Luca put on her best hose and, over the linen shirt, the expensive doublet her mother made her get last year. She walked to her father’s room and knocked. A loud snore penetrated the door. She was going to be in so much trouble for this she thought as she left her father to slumber.
The walk to the paper shop was the longest short walk Luca ever walked. The shop seemed more ominous than it did the day before, and while there were people walking down the streets and traveling by gondolas Luca had never felt so alone or so scared. Maybe she should have left her father a letter in case Signore Rosso really did end up killing her for getting his daughter pregnant. Luca was at the door when she nearly lost her resolve, but then she remembered the argument, and Coletta’s tear-streaked face. With a deep sigh she pushed the door open and walked inside, locking the door after herself.
Signore Rosso sat at his counter, cutting the roll of paper into sheets. His brow was heavy and his demeanor dark. He didn’t look up when Luca approached him. She looked at the knife in his hand as it sliced through the paper smoothly, gulped, and cleared her throat.
“What is it Luca?” Francesco asked, not looking up from his work.
“I wanted to talk with you, Signore Rosso. About something important.”
The man put the knife down and gave Luca all his attention, palms flat on the counter. His eyes looked sad and Luca thought about how she was about to irrevocably shatter his image of her. And then she thought about how, maybe, possibly this would work out.
“I want to marry your daughter,” Luca said and held her breath. She fiddled with her hands and watched him.
She couldn’t tell what the exact emotion that passed his face at that moment was, but the pain in her face from the punch he threw was potent enough that in the moment she didn’t much care about what he felt. She stumbled backwards, knocking over a few rolls of paper, and clutched her cheek as hot pain laced through her skull. Her cheekbone felt like it was on fire, and the entire left side of her face throbbed in tandem with her heartbeat. She groaned and stood back up. Francesco stood with his fist raised, angry and heaving deep breaths, but then he lowered his hand and fixed his ruffled clothes.
“Were you the bastard who defiled my daughter?” The calmness in his voice was chilling.
Luca didn’t know what to say. This was all happening very fast, and her head was stalling. She stuttered, her mouth working but no sounds coming out, and then decided it was better not to say anything on that matter.
“Please, Signore Rosso. I…” Luca said, swallowing her panic and steeling herself for another punch, “I love her.”
When he rounded the counter, brandishing a heavy roll of paper, and thankfully not the knife, Luca was more prepared. She caught the roll as he swung it at her, backing up and trying to keep the man from hitting her again. “Signore! Signore Rosso, please! Let’s just talk about it.”
The clatter and ruckus from their fight got the attention of Signora Rosso and her daughter. The two of them rushed into the room, and Coletta gasped when she saw that it was Luca that her father was wrestling with. The two of them rushed over to Francesco, pulling him away with effort. Coletta’s mother fussed over her husband who was still trying to get to Luca, and corralled him back behind the counter, sitting him down on his chair and soothing him with her words. Luca stood frozen, a roll of wrinkled paper in her arms and her clothes in disarray. Coletta walked over, tilting Luca’s face and touching the reddened skin as Luca tried not to flinch.
She fixed Luca’s doublet, rebuttoning the few buttons that had come undone. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Luca.
“It’s okay, I think I’m wearing him down,” Luca joked. The two of them looked over to Coletta’s parents and turned right back when they saw Francesco’s furious gaze aimed at Luca. “I think I should try talking to him again.”
Coletta stayed where she was, taking the roll of paper, while Luca walked back over to the counter, cautiously moving the knife that still rested on the paper away. She nodded in greeting to Signora Rosso, and then turned her attention back to Francesco. “Signore Rosso, let me fix this. I want to marry her.”
“It was you?” Signora Rosso yelped. “Francesco, he needs to marry her. What else can we do? Where will she go otherwise?” She seemed a little green to Luca, and Luca was worried that she would faint at any moment judging from the paleness of the Signora’s face.
“I can get twenty ducats as a dowry, and I have a good business, she’ll live comfortably,” Luca said, wishing Signora Rosso was here to begin with if this was how the conversation would have gone.
“I want you out of here,” said Signore Rosso, pointing a finger at Luca threateningly, “and you have a week to set the wedding up or I will strangle you myself.”
A week. Luca could do that. She walked to the door, giving Coletta a smile and a nod, and went home.
It wasn’t quite a year, but Luca’s life wasn’t particularly normal and so she figured celebrating the anniversary of their union a little earlier than the actual anniversary wouldn’t hurt. She strolled home, a bundle of fabric she’d seen her wife eye last week in the market under one arm, with a wooden figurine in one hand and a palm sized package wrapped in burlap in the other. The gondolas swam by her and the comforting swell of the water against the rocks followed her through the streets, putting a serene smile on her face as she walked. The rising sun shone against her tan face, broken only by the arches framing the streets she passed by in her happy haste.
Her house came into view, and she rushed inside, running to the second floor two steps at a time. She slowed down and lightened her steps when she saw her wife in their room. Coletta rested in bed, their son leaning against her breast, grunting as he fed, his tiny hand wrapped around the fabric of Coletta’s nightgown. Her eyes were tired, but she looked up at Luca when she walked into their room and smiled. Luca snuck over, settling on her side of the bed, and gave the tiny head a kiss, grinning when Nicolo slipped off the nipple and immediately began to nose for it again, his tiny grunts and exhales familiar and comforting.
Coletta pushed her a little with her shoulder in annoyance and she helped Nicolo latch back on, wincing a little, but Luca could see a dimple forming in her cheek despite Coletta’s effort to keep frowning.
“Good morning my little king,” Luca whispered to her son, letting her finger slip into his fist as he gripped tightly. “You’re getting strong,” she said as she felt his nails cut into her skin, his white fingers contrasting against her blackened ones.
“Yes, he is,” Coletta whispered back, “and I think his teeth are starting to grow in.”
“I got you something,” Luca said, showing the roll of fabric and the small package to Coletta. “And every king needs a steed,” she said as she placed the wooden horse figurine onto the end table next to the bed.
She took Nicolo from Coletta and waited for her wife to pull her nightgown up over her chest and shoulder. Nicolo wiggled fitfully in her hold, tiny legs kicking out. Luca cradled him to herself, cooing at him as he grunted and growled, tongue peeking out and eyes scrunching up. “Don’t cry, baby,” she said at him, smiling down and rubbing his tummy. She kept her hand on his torso rubbing gently and turned her attention to Coletta as she finished tying up her nightgown. “I was thinking we’d go to the tailor today and measure you for a dress,” Luca said, nodding to the fabric roll.
“A dress?” Coletta asked, dimples in full view as she unfurled the material a little, her cheeks showing a dusting of red. She ran her fingers over it reverently. “For what occasion?”
“We will have been married for a year at the end of the month and with your dowry robbing me blind,” Luca said not hiding her teasing grin, “I couldn’t exactly do things properly. Open your gift.”
Luca watched Coletta narrow her eyes at the burlap-wrapped package and after a moment, she slipped the twine holding it together off, and pulled the covering off. A beautifully carved wooden box sat in her palm, varnished edges glistening in the ever-rising sun and highlighting the intricate etchings on its sides.
The weight of her son in her arms, and the smile on her wife’s face when she saw the ring in the box made Luca aware of just how light she felt. The forgotten feeling of isolation hadn’t resurfaced for a long time, her chest felt free, and her life felt full. She took the ring from the box while Coletta took off the simple one Luca had to get for their wedding and put it onto the now vacant finger. The sculpted, intertwined, dark, metal hands clasped each other, contrasting with Coletta’s skin in their luster. The ring looked proper, felt right.
Her wife pulled her in, kissing her as Nicolo wriggled between them, his voice getting louder as he fought against the pressure of his parents on either side of him, and his wails pierced the moment. Luca leaned back, laying him onto her chest, and watching as his eyes searched her face while he cried. “And what about you, my little man? Do you like mama’s ring?” she asked, pecking his nose.
“Alright, stop making him cry,” Coletta laughed, taking her son back, as Luca stood back up. “Go finish up work and we’ll meet you downstairs when I get him ready.”
“And then off to the tailor?”
“And then off to the tailor,” Coletta agreed.
Luca walked out of the room, turning back around and leaning over the door frame, lingering for a moment. She watched her family for a moment longer, and then turned and walked down the stairs, walking into her study, and settling into her chair.
The familiar scent of paper and ink and saltwater greeted her. The stacks of papers blocked the light in the window, and the lone candle sat unlit in its holder. Her father seemed to have already brought in the bowl with the water for her, and she smiled at the freshly mixed ink and the shaved feather pen. She ran her finger over the tip, checking to see whether it was to her liking, and grabbed a page she was working on the day before. She dipped the pen into the ink, and set it to paper, her blackened fingers flowing over her work, and a serenity she had only just gotten used to surrounding her in easy companionship.
Copyright © 2018 V. M. Agab